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An NFTA delegation that made a sales call on Southwest Airlines last week got an invitation to provide further information.

"I thought our presentation was very well received and well put together," NFTA Chairman Robert D. Gioia said Monday. "The biggest challenge we have is showing them we are a region and it's not just Buffalo, N.Y."

That is the foundation of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's case to Southwest, one they hope will differentiate Buffalo from the 100-plus cities each year that eagerly court the nation's most sought after budget airline.

The NFTA believes Southwest's track record of providing fares so low that passengers will drive hours to take advantage of them will play well in an area that has 8 million people living within 100 miles.

The big question that Southwest planners asked after the 2 1/2 -hour meeting was how easy it is for Canadians to come across the border to fly.

"They want a thorough understanding of the local market, especially the trans-border issues," Gioia said.

He said he'll enlist support from the Peace Bridge Authority, Niagara Falls Bridge Commission and others familiar with cross-border issues to assist.

After the formal meeting at Southwest's Love Field headquarters in Dallas, Gioia said he and the other members of the NFTA team, Commissioner Luiz Kahl and Executive Director Richard T. Swist, bumped into CEO Herb Kelleher, the charismatic head of Southwest.

Kelleher recognized Morris R. Garfinkle, president of the consulting firm hired by the NFTA to help in its quest for better air service, and chatted with the Buffalo group for several minutes.

He was told a winged bison awaited him, courtesy of the venerable Buffalo Aero Club.

Gioia pointed out that it took Omaha, Neb., a city recently visited by members of the Niagara air service committee for ideas, seven years of lobbying before Southwest entered that market in 1995.

Luring Southwest here has been the dream of Brendan P. Cunningham, an Orchard Park business owner, for more than a year. He began a one-man campaign because its prices and service regularly lead him to Cleveland, the closest airport to Buffalo served by Southwest.

Cunningham leaves his home at 7 a.m. and drives 175 miles to Cleveland to fly Southwest to Chicago because he saves $800 over the price from Buffalo. He gets back at 11 p.m. that night.

"They are very competitive and do not punish the business traveler by requiring a Saturday night stay," he said. "Typically, the air fares are one-seventh to one-tenth the cost a business traveler would pay here."

He's written Kelleher and Pete McGlade, the company official in charge of planning.

So far, the company has given him a polite response, saying Southwest is exploring options in New York and Buffalo is among the areas being looked at.

The mostly Sun Belt carrier made its first foray into the Northeast in Baltimore in 1993 and began serving Providence, R.I. last year. The 26-year-old airline began as an inter-Texas shuttle and now serves 51 cities in 25 states.

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