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US AIRWAYS' OFFER OF DISCOUNT FARES GENERATES MIXED REACTIONS

In a region scanning the skies for any good news regarding air fares, the announcement by US Airways of a limited sale geared toward upstate leisure travelers was a sparrow or an eagle -- depending on who was talking.

To political leaders such as Attorney General Dennis Vacco and Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, and to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, the Monday development was a soaring start, proof that US Airways was backing off its arrogant ways and becoming more responsive.

To business travelers still facing exorbitant prices to fly during the week, it didn't get a peep of praise Tuesday.

"It's fine for people who want to stay a Saturday, but if I want to travel for business and don't want to give up a weekend with my family it means nothing," said Brendan Cunningham, an Orchard Park industrial equipment sales representative.

The fare sale does provide good deals for travelers to several Northeast cities -- including New York -- who can leave on a Saturday and return within three days, on a Sunday, Monday or Tuesday. They can fly for between $118 and $158 round trip.

It also offers something special for travelers 62 and older, who can fly for $118 round trip any day of the week to many Northeast destinations.

Finally, it gives the same seven-day advance purchase option travelers in Rochester have had, although it requires the Saturday stay that Cunningham and many other businessmen dislike.

But it doesn't do a thing for people like Rick Glaser, a Tonawanda boxing promoter who recently was told he'd have to pay a walk-up fare of $1,500 to fly round trip to Las Vegas. The same trip from Philadelphia costs $275, he said.

"Everybody has missed the point," he said, referring to the US Airways announcement. "They haven't done a thing. If they have no competition, they'll overcharge us. It's a blatant rip-off."

What's more disturbing, some business critics say, is an emerging pattern of US Airways offering small concessions in response to criticism, and the willingness of community leaders to accept them as significant progress.

After US Airways officials came to Buffalo June 30 in response to mounting criticism, the airline began marketing its e-mail discounts here, a program available to personal computer users connected to the Internet.

It's a great deal if you can take advantage of a $79 round-trip fare offer to New York on two days notice, leave on a Saturday and return by the following Tuesday. That's not the case with most business travelers and many leisure passengers as well.

US Airways officials also promised during the June 30 meeting they'd have something more for local travelers within 30 days. That's why NFTA Executive Director Richard T. Swist traveled to Washington, D.C., Monday to meet with airline brass at their headquarters.

The results were the limited weekend, senior and seven-day discount offers. The airline also promised to review a request to provide price breaks to business passengers flying during off-peak hours on weekdays.

"I don't believe we've been appeased at all," said Swist, adding the airline will respond in 10 days about the off-peak business-travel proposal.

He also said the US Airways announcement will not affect the NFTA's search for a low-fare airline to bring competition to the market.

State Sen. Catherine M. Abate, D-Manhattan, who created a stir earlier this year when her office released a study describing the exorbitant fares being charged in New York State, was critical of the development.

"This deal does nothing for the beleaguered business traveler, conventioneer or tourist who needs any greater flexibility in his or her travel plans," she said. "Most travelers will still pay sky-high air fares to fly in New York State."

Cunningham and others say the only thing that will make US Airways compete is if a low-fare carrier comes to town. He has engaged in a one-man campaign to bring Dallas-based Southwest Airlines here, the nation's premier budget carrier.

"I think the people at the NFTA should start reading the fine print and put the screws to airlines serving Buffalo to force them to clean up their act," he said.

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