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AFTER ATTACKS, JETBLUE IS FIRST TO CUT FLIGHTS

The first of what is expected to be many flight reductions is hitting home at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, with JetBlue cutting one of its five daily round trips between Buffalo and New York's JFK Airport.

The popular, low-cost airline has grounded its daily 3:05 p.m. flight from John F. Kennedy Airport to Buffalo, along with its 5 p.m. return trip to JFK, effective Oct. 1. Word of the local cut comes as the airline announced a slate of reductions, including round-trip flights to Rochester, Syracuse and New Orleans from its New York base.

Fiona Morrison, a JetBlue spokeswoman, said the reduction in passenger loads following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is forcing the cutback.

"It's an understandable result of what's happened. Fewer people are flying right now," Morrison said.

Though JetBlue is the first to officially announce cuts, several airlines, including United, American and Continental, have signaled that the negative effects of last week's incidents, coupled with the industry's generally rocky financial climate, will force flight reductions of 20 percent or more and massive personnel cuts. The JetBlue representative said the airline has no plans to further trim its roster of four remaining Buffalo flights or to reduce its 32-person Buffalo work force.

"We believe our remaining flights will continue to meet the scheduling needs of our loyal Buffalo travelers, and we're absolutely looking forward to the time when America wants to fly again," Morrison said.

The scrappy, privately held JetBlue, which entered the Buffalo market in February 2000, is regarded as one of the best-positioned to weather the stormy fiscal environment ahead. With its lean operating structure, it's the only airline in the United States that has had 10 consecutive quarters of profitability.

Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines stated it has no intention of cutting any of its 10 daily Buffalo arrivals and departures. Jeff Haag, Southwest's upstate New York marketing manager, said the airline flew 100 percent of its scheduled Buffalo flights Thursday and insisted that won't change.

"Southwest has always prided itself on relationships, and now is the time when we need those relationships the most. We want to let business and leisure travelers know we haven't changed. We're the same airline we've been for 30 years," Haag said.

Southwest became the first U.S. airline to break the industry's self-imposed advertising moratorium Wednesday with print ads in major newspapers and broadcast spots during various Major League Baseball games. Haag confirmed that the airline would like to pump up its passenger count, which has dropped off considerably in the wake of the terrorist actions.

"Passenger loads are something we're working on. As part of that effort, we want to let people know we're in the air and ready to provide the product they are used to," Haag added.

US Airways, which carries the largest share of Buffalo passengers, with 29 percent of the total flier count, said it had nothing to announce in the way of flight changes at this time.

Lawrence Meckler, executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, said while flights at the Buffalo airport are flying at about 90 percent of pre-attack levels, he is waiting for airlines to announce cutbacks.

"We know it's going to happen. We'll probably be down to about 80 percent of what we had very shortly," Meckler said. "But hopefully, as time goes on and people start flying again, we'll see flights come back on the board."

If a reduction in flights had to occur, this isn't the worst time for it to happen, according to Meckler, who pointed to the local growth in air service by such newcomers as Southwest and JetBlue.

"There was a time when the cutbacks would have been devastating, but that's not the case now. Supply of flights should still meet demand. We've had a lot of planes coming and going that certainly weren't full, even before last Tuesday," Meckler said.

Local travel agents agree that even before the events of the past 10 days, airlines were out of sync with the traveling public. Too many planes were taking off with too few passengers to make economic sense.

"The fact is, travel was already down 25 percent prior to Sept. 11. The demand wasn't there, so this would be a very opportune time to cut flights," said Jean Covelli, president of Travel Team, one of the area's largest travel companies.

The veteran travel agent also predicted that because of soft demand for flights, undoubtedly made even softer by the terrorist incidents, local travelers won't feel a pinch from fewer flights.

A key factor in just how far airlines cut their services is the outcome of efforts to secure a federal bailout. The Air Transport Association has asked the government for almost $25 billion in aid to stabilize carriers' finances and help them get through the current crisis.

The White House on Wednesday proposed an $8 billion plan to stabilize the airlines. Thursday, members of the House said they would go further than the Bush plan, with billions of dollars in grants, loan guarantees and liability limits.

The association has predicted U.S. airline traffic will fall by up to 60 percent for the next several months, forcing more than 100,000 job cuts industrywide and pushing airlines into bankruptcy or out of business.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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