A consultant Monday urged the NFTA to "go west" in its search for a low-fare airline, specifically Phoenix-based America West and Southwest Airlines of Dallas.
Barney Parella of GKMG Consulting Service recommended the new Niagara Region Air Service Development Committee call on America West in September and visit Southwest, one of the nation's most keenly courted budget airlines, in October.
America West has been expanding, Parella said, and could provide Buffalo with non-stop flights to Las Vegas and Phoenix with a connection to Los Angeles. A visit to America West also would provide a good warm-up for approaching the big prize, Southwest.
Obtaining service from either airline would bring competition to the Buffalo market, which is chafing under the steep fares and what critics call an unresponsive attitude from US Airways. Parella said an air travel survey he conducted for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority determined:
High fares are the top concern of Buffalo air travelers.
A growing number of people are flying out of Toronto and Cleveland.
Survey respondents feel captive to US Airways, which has 41 percent of the market at Greater Buffalo International Airport and dominates Northeast business destinations.
Local businesses are reducing travel to offset rising travel costs.
Parella also told the 22-member committee, which was established by the NFTA last month to boost efforts to improve air service, that it would not be a "loony bin" idea to support the start of a new airline to serve New York State and New England.
"There is no market in the country with this much traffic and this much latent demand with fares this high," he said. "It's probably the last area of the country that has failed to see the benefits of (airline) deregulation."
Luke Rich, regional director for the Empire State Economic Development Corp. and a member of the air service committee, said his parent agency has been in contact with three companies interested in providing regional air service but that still is early in the process.
Promising negotiations also are being held between the State Development Corp. and Southwest Airlines, Rich said. Southwest is interested in serving Stewart Airport, a state-owned facility in Newburgh, 40 miles north of New York City.
Should Southwest fly into Stewart, its first venture into New York State, Parella said, Buffalo would fit the routing framework used by the airline. Cities that could be served from here are Providence, Baltimore, Chicago Midway, Nashville and several Florida destinations.
"Southwest is geared toward the leisure market," he said, "but the low fares and frequency of service are attractive to businesses as well."
How receptive America West and Southwest would be to a pitch from Buffalo is uncertain. Patty Nowack, an America West spokeswoman, said her airline, which currently serves 51 destinations with 100 aircraft, is reaching the end of a two-year expansion.
"Our executives are discussing a future growth plan, but we're not ready to talk about that," she said.
Southwest also has been coy about its
plans. The airline has become the most popular low-fare carrier in the United States because of its reputation for dependability, safety and service as well as low prices.
Two other airlines that Parella recommended for formal presentations later this year are Delta Express, a low-fare division of Delta, and Carnival/Pan Am airline. Delta Express would boost service to Orlando, one of the most popular destinations for Buffalo leisure travelers.
Carnival serves South Florida and is a growing company. Parella cautioned, however, that the carrier is in fragile financial condition.
Further down the list in the strategic plan prepared by Parella are efforts to persuade US Airways to reduce fares voluntarily. He and members of the committee are doubtful the carrier will respond to anything but competition in the market.
NFTA officials plan to meet with US Airways executives in Washington, D.C., next week and will be asking the company to help local business travelers. At a minimum, US Airways will be expected to provide the same seven-day advance purchase offered in Rochester.
Committee members generally supported Parella's recommendations, but there was some criticism that the survey did not address attracting more travel to the area, particularly by tourists. Niagara Falls representatives support an ongoing effort to bring Kiwi International Airlines into the Falls airport.
Another potential low-fare carrier opportunity for Buffalo may come out of the purchase of AirTran Airways by ValuJet. AirTran offers a daily flight to Orlando from here, and its purchase may mean Buffalo will be linked to the much larger ValuJet system.
In other NFTA-related matters:
Edwin "Eddie" Soto, a Metro Bus driver, was honored for retrieving a bag containing almost $10,000 that was left in his bus by a passenger earlier this month. He was accompanied by his wife, Theresa, and children, Nicholas, 13, and Melissa, 7.