The 5 millionth passenger to cross through a gateway this year at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport carried an uncommon gift for Buffalo -- resounding success for a redevelopment project critical to this entire region. That piece of unchecked carry-off baggage involved a level of local air passenger volume that came in 14 years ahead of schedule; talk about making up time in the air!
The enormity of that achievement should not be lost on a community that has seen its share of unfulfilled plans, artist's renderings and promised developments. The airport terminal has become a local standard for large-scale achievement.
The collective effort that helped bring airport passenger volume to that level, which had not been predicted until 2020, also took the airport from the nation's second-most expensive to use in 1996 to the 71st in 2005. That encourages a greater array of airline choices, greater flight frequency and passenger traffic. In sort, it makes the airport a better economic development tool.
The new and architecturally dramatic terminal opened on Nov. 3, 1997, with cautious optimism. When the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority put together its financing package for the new airport, the use projection was 3.8 million passengers a year. Luring low-cost airlines to Buffalo helped change that and put the terminal, as NFTA Executive Director Lawrence Meckler said, essentially 14 years ahead of schedule. Credit for landing JetBlue, Southwest Airlines and AirTran is due Sen. Charles Schumer, NFTA leaders including the late Luiz F. Kahl, and others; that effort resulted in competition and lower air fare prices for consumers, a major factor in boosting passenger volume.
Lately, the NFTA has focused more on its core mission of transportation, and proved that by working toward transferring waterfront land -- 120 acres of former Port of Buffalo and other property along Fuhrmann Boulevard from the Seaway Piers to the former Freezer Queen plant -- to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. In making the announcement a few months ago, NFTA chairman Gregory Stamm sensibly stated: "They're in the development business; we're not. We run buses, trains and two airports."
Travelers can appreciate efforts to improve transportation facilities. There's another visible measure of success: The license plates in the airport parking lots reflect, on average, 20 to 25 percent usage by travelers from the Canadian market.
The NFTA does not seem to be resting on its laurels. There's not a day that goes by in which the agency isn't talking to an airline about adding a flight here or there, officials said. From baggage to vendors, taking ownership and responsibility at the airport is important for the NFTA. Its mission to continue to improve and bring more people through the airport for a positive experience is reflected in the numbers.
Right now, those numbers are exceptionally good. It will, however, take hard work within the volatile airline industry environment to keep them that way. Buffalo's highly successful airport terminal -- now living up to its soaring design symbolism -- was a great place to start.