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Sen. Charles E. Schumer has put the manager of New York's LaGuardia Airport on notice that plans to relieve the facility's severe congestion must include plans for better service to upstate cities such as Buffalo.

That's no small thing, given that current plans threaten to do just the opposite by putting at risk the few slots that serve upstate cities now.

New York is an international draw, of course, so competition is fierce. But as Schumer observed in a letter to the head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, taxpayers of this state fork over billions of dollars a year supporting the authority. That gives New Yorkers a powerful claim to use of the facilities the authority owns, LaGuardia prominent among them.

The problem was quantified earlier this year, when the Federal Aviation Administration released a report showing that LaGuardia held the nation's worst record for delays last year, with 15.6 percent of its flights late. The second worst, another New York City area airport in Newark, N.J., had 8.1 percent of its flights delayed. With congestion like that, LaGuardia administrators obviously have to act, and it's fair to say that no answer will satisfy everyone, given the excessive demand for slots at this small, aging airport just eight miles from midtown Manhattan.

But with the recent arrival of financially strong low-cost carriers, Buffalo is just coming in from the cold on air travel. That is not only a real convenience for the people and businesses that call this region home, but a powerful tool for economic developers.

What is more, New York City is by far this airport's No. 1 destination, either for the city, itself, or the network of connections its three airports provide. This region cannot afford to take its slots for granted at any of New York's airports, especially LaGuardia, given its proximity to Manhattan and the fierce competition for space. Lawrence Meckler, executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, is concerned enough that he testified about it to a congressional subcommittee.

The Port Authority's ideas for dealing with LaGuardia's congestion include auctioning off slots, which would put low-cost carriers at a disadvantage, and charging a premium for slots during peak travel time, which could have the same effect if it is handled carelessly.

Schumer is taking just the right approach on this. Although Buffalo is in a much better position today than it was just two years ago, it needs to protect those improvements and look for more. Other upstate cities are in worse shape, still suffering from air service that is both poor and expensive. LaGuardia's difficulties need to be seen not only as a problem to be solved, but as a way to change those facts of life in upstate New York.

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