Ninety-nine years ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright, refining a promising glider, weren't sure adding a motor would be possible.
In the swiftly changing world of aviation, seeing 99 years into the future would strain any forecaster's abilities. But if all goes as planned, the Niagara Falls International Airport soon will be turned over to a Spanish company -- for 99 years.
Beginning this week, people and organizations interested in the decision have their last chance to speak out, as the Federal Aviation Administration opens a 60-day period for comments on the proposed deal.
The contract would make Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte -- a $2 billion, publicly traded Spanish company -- responsible for the airport's operating costs. Cintra agreed to spend at least $10.1 million over a 13-year period on marketing, promotion, capital improvements and drawing up a master plan, though Cintra has said it actually intends to spend that sum within five years.
In exchange, Cintra has the airport for 99 years, rent-free unless it lands more than 450,000 passengers. Last year about 2,500 people, carried mostly by private planes, used the airport.
The comment period, required by law, is designed to give people interested in the airport deal, including the community around the airport, one last chance to tell the FAA anything the federal airport regulators should know about before concluding the arrangement, said Kevin Willis, FAA compliance officer.
Whether opponents of the Cintra deal could influence or delay it at this point remains unclear.
U.S. Rep. John LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, whose district includes the airport, has urged the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which owns the airport, to include performance guarantees so it could get out of the arrangement if Cintra fails to deliver.
But the negotiated contract includes no such clauses, and NFTA officials have said that the airport has been doing so little business that performance standards would be unrealistic.
LaFalce, the highest-ranking official to publicly oppose the contract, has been unavailable to comment on the matter.
Issues that the FAA would consider, Willis said, include keeping the airport accessible to the public at "fair and reasonable terms."
That doesn't mean Cintra has to start passenger service. It means that the airport needs to remain open to private planes.
The FAA wants to be sure that the airport contract meets all applicable regulations and laws, that commitments linked to past federal aid at the airport are upheld and that the airport doesn't engage in economic discrimination, Willis said.
But the FAA would not determine whether the 99-year lease is in the best interests of the community, Willis said, adding, "That's up to the sponsor," in this case the NFTA. After the 60-day period, the FAA will review the comments, Willis said, then make a decision. How long that will take remains unclear, Willis said. The Niagara Falls airport is only the second of five sites being transferred to private ownership under a federal program.
Once the FAA review is complete, the contract is considered signed, said Lawrence M. Meckler, NFTA executive director.
Cintra officials say a preliminary marketing study has prompted the company to consider the tourist charter business as a main target.
That would dovetail nicely with the kind of projects that Niagara Falls Redevelopment, the city's master developer, is trying to encourage in downtown Niagara Falls, said Roger Trevino, the developer's spokesman.