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New York draws air commuters from South Fla.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Nearly every week for the past 25 years, Steve Landes has put up with a commute that would make even the most seasoned driver cringe.

The 60-year-old Delray Beach resident is among a band of frequent fliers who keep homes in southern Florida but make the pilgrimage every week to work and live in the Big Apple.

They board planes the way others take the bus or commuter train, shelling out $10,000 a year or more on airline tickets.

It's hard to pin down exactly how many southern Florida residents take to the skies to get to work in New York, but judging by the same businesspeople Landes always finds aboard his Monday morning Continental Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale to Newark, N.J., he's not alone.

"I would never trade in what I've done," Landes said. "I don't regret one week of it."

'Appealed to me'

Peter Begovich owns a towing shop in Union City, N.Y., and was attracted by the Florida lifestyle when he moved to the Sunshine State. He lives in Jupiter with his son, who attends Florida Atlantic University.

"It just appealed to me," Begovich said. "It was something I thought I could do."

Every Monday, Begovich flies out of Palm Beach International Airport and arrives at work by 1 p.m. He's home by Friday afternoon.

"It becomes a way of life. After a while you get into a routine commuting schedule," Begovich said. "I enjoy my weekends in Florida. I like to go fishing. It's like a year-round vacation."

Flying to work isn't as crazy or costly as it sounds, says Landes, an underwear sales manager who has an office in the Empire State Building.

Landes, who grew up in New York, said he wanted a better life for his family when he moved to Boca Raton in the 1970s. Now divorced and living in Delray Beach, he said he wanted to keep his good-paying job up North but enjoyed the benefits of living in Florida - the year-round warmth and lower cost of living.

So he found a way to do both.

The amount of long-distance commuting isn't tracked, but industry experts say it is small.

For those who do it, the top reason is that it's a fast ticket to a better job. But it comes at a price, putting a considerable strain on families, not to mention the toll caused by loneliness, inconvenience, added expenses and the hours and frustration of the travel itself.

Candy Gail Ulrich says it's definitely more expensive for her, but she does it anyway.

For 14 years, the 51-year-old Hollywood, Fla., woman has flown every week to her job in Manhattan, selling for a company based in Fort Lauderdale.

Ulrich moved from the Northeast to Florida when her father died; she wanted to be closer to her mother. Both parents are gone now, but Ulrich is sold on living in Florida - and working in New York.

'Most insane thing'

"I've been doing this job so long. I'm very well entrenched in the New York market. It would be difficult to start over," she said. "I'm not a budget person, but if I was, I'd would tell myself that this is the most insane thing than any single person could do."

Ulrich said the benefits of living in Florida outweigh the costs. She kept her pad in New York, where she stays during the week, and on the weekends she retreats to her cozy apartment in a Hollywood high rise along the beach.

"This is the best gift I could ever give myself. When I go down there, the first thing I do is walk into a room filled with rainbow colors. It's got glass, with a 270-degree view around with the oceans and preserves," she said. "It's like I just have to catch my breath. I can't believe I own this. Some day, I'll be down [in Florida] full time. Until then, I'll keep doing this crazy thing."

Landes has never added up the costs on paper to be sure what he's doing is more affordable. But when he starts thinking about the cost of living and raising a family in the Northeast, he's convinced it's right for him.

"It's much cheaper living," Landes said. "Taxes on a real nice home [in Florida] can go $2,000 to $3,000 where up North, be it Long Island or New Jersey, you're going to pay $6,000 to $8,000 a year. If you have kids, sending your kid to college in Florida can be very reasonable. There's no oil to heat your house. There are no winter clothes. The kids are healthier. The food is cheaper. Your electric bills are cheaper. Biggest of all, in the New York-New Jersey area, no matter where you live, it's going to cost you $200 a month or more just to commute to your job. I'm sure if you figured it out in writing, it's much cheaper living in Florida period."

Landes founded the South Florida Airline Commuters Association a decade ago after Eastern Airlines went out of business, and the group counts more than 300 fliers as members. Most of them fly back and forth from South Florida to New Jersey and New York City. A few travel to and from Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

During the week

During the week, airline commuters stay in small apartments in the city, with relatives, or in second homes they own in the region. When they punch the time clock at the end of the week, they board another plane to return to Florida.

For years, Landes' group has sought monthly commuter tickets and other relief for air commuters such as fewer ticket restrictions, without much success.

But the major airlines' response to pleas from passenger advocacy groups like Landes' has been the frequent flier program, which airlines say provides enough free miles for people who travel often.

Begovich said the money spent on plane tickets - about $200 to $300 apiece - is about what he would spend on weekends for dining out and entertainment in New York if he lived there all the time. "It works out," he said.

Some of the biggest beefs about working away from home have to do with simple logistics - being stuck in airports or waiting for a plane to be de-iced or fog to clear ranks right up there on the frustration scale.

Sept. 11 turned fliers' lives upside down when all air traffic was halted for four days. With a gantlet of security measures and longer lines now a permanent part of the flying routine, most fliers agree the trip isn't as easy as it used to be.

Being apart from loved ones in Florida can be trying, but Ulrich said laptop computers, e-mail and cell phones have made the world seem a little closer.

Ulrich said she considers her flying companions friends. "I see the same people all the time. It's like having another network of friends. I don't hang out with these people, but I'm always glad to see them," she said.

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