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An air rush to Orlando is expected this winter, with two budget airlines entering the market here and igniting a fare war that will warm Snow Birds flying south.

MetroJet and Delta Express are starting nonstop jet service to Orlando early next month, going up against established low-fare carrier AirTran. The three-way competition will push prices lower than anyone in these parts has seen, travel experts say.

Both low-fare airlines have announced introductory fares to Orlando at less than $160 round-trip. Delta Express, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, starts Oct. 2 and MetroJet, a USAirways spinoff, debuts Oct. 4.

"For the consumer, it's going to be great," said Bonnie Rademacher, vice president of Carlson Wagonlit Travel. "This (set of fares) will be the lowest you'll see or they've ever been, and they will be connecting to other cities as well."

Western New Yorkers have a love affair with Florida during the cold weather months; Orlando alone drew 240,000 visitors from this area last year, according to the Orange County, Fla., tourism office.

Since AirTran started once-a-day nonstop service to Orlando in 1995, central Florida has grown from the seventh- to the second-biggest market linked to Buffalo Niagara International Airport, trailing only New York City.

The number of passengers has grown from 78,000 in 1993 to 174,000 last year, up 123 percent. NFTA officials say Orlando actually is the No. 1 travel destination now for people living in the area.

For AirTran and Santo Tours, a local charter company that lists Orlando as its biggest destination, the arrival of the two major carriers dressed in low-fare clothing could be a threat, experts say.

Besides Buffalo, Delta Express is beginning service in October to Albany, Rochester and Syracuse. MetroJet is coming to Albany and Rochester.

AirTran has responded by dropping all its upstate destinations except Buffalo. It also has shifted the Orlando flight it had been offering to Atlanta, bringing the total of daily nonstops to Atlanta to three. The move improves service for business travelers as well as serving -- albeit less conveniently -- Florida vacationers.

"By offering three non-stops to Atlanta, we provide connections to seven cities in Florida as well as multiple opportunities for people to other destinations," said Jeff McKinney, AirTran senior vice president of marketing and planning.

"Our view is that this provides a better overall product offering to our customers in Buffalo and the Niagara region."

Santo Tours has expanded its destinations to include Cancun, Mexico, and plans to continue its weekly Orlando charter flights despite the competition from low-fare, scheduled carriers. It also is trying to strike a deal with MetroJet to sell bulk tour seats to Orlando.

"We want to be competitive in pricing and keep people happy with our product," said Robert Crivelli, vice president of sales and marketing for Santo. "We think all of us will do fairly well."

Crivelli said a Florida trip has become a time-honored tradition in Western New York along with the rest of the Northeast.

"We've been indoctrinated as children that Florida is a vacation spot for 40 years now," he said. "People are now property owners and they're instilling this in their children and grandchildren."

Throw in the attractions unique to Orlando -- Disney World and a soon-to-open second attraction from Universal Studios -- as well as its proximity to the rest of Florida sun spots, and the lower air fares should increase an already big market.

"Orlando is within two to four hours of any other popular destination in Florida, and it's an easy place to rent a car," said Jean M. Covelli, president of Travel Team, Inc. "You can also combine with low-cost carriers to the Caribbean."

Delta Express will start with one daily round trip from Buffalo and expand to two by November. It also will offer connecting flights from Orlando to Tampa, Fort Myers, West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

MetroJet will offer two daily round trips to Orlando but provides no connecting flights to other Florida cities.

AirTran, which offers connections to seven Florida cities and a dozen other Southern destinations, will also have its 7:25 a.m. Buffalo-Atlanta flight continue on directly to Orlando.

Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority officials hope the improved Florida service will continue to spur passenger growth at the airport. Although other upstate cities will be served by the new low-fare carriers, more snowbirds may be attracted from Southern Ontario.

"This will clearly have a positive effect on the quality of life for people in the region," said David Gregory, acting aviation director for the NFTA. "It allows them to travel for less money, with a better schedule and better equipment. We can grow the market."

The NFTA also recognizes that cheaper flights to Florida do not address the long-term needs of business travelers trying to find less expensive tickets to places such as New York, Chicago and Washington D.C.

"We're not there yet," said Luiz F. Kahl, NFTA chairman. "We'll continue to focus on business service for Western New York."

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