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Airport expects record passengers

On Dec. 27 the Buffalo Niagara International Airport counted the 5 millionth passenger to walk through its gates in 2006, marking the first time the airport has reached that flier milestone in a single calendar year.

Airport officials see no letup in business in 2007, with predictions the 5 million mark will be reached by late November and climb another 4 percent, to around 5.2 million, for the full year.

And those travelers will have more flight options than ever before. In January 2006, the airport counted 101 daily flights. The number stood at 111 at the start of this year.

A slate of new direct flights at good prices to New York, Boston, Chicago, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale is expected to have more Buffalo area residents reaching for their suitcases in the next 12 months.

"We are sitting in an absolutely great position. Our opportunities only continue to expand," said Gregory Stamm, chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

Stamm said that from a physical, operational standpoint, the Buffalo airport is also in a solid position. The airport terminal, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary this fall, continues to meet both space and functionality needs.

The facility, which still has three open gates, is deemed to have enough capacity for the "foreseeable future," according to Stamm. Its design has also allowed for post- 9/1 1 federal security requirements to be met without major disruptions or diminished efficiencies.

"At the time the airport was built no one could have imagined how airport security would change, but the design has allowed for efficient pregate screening even with increased passenger volume," the NFTA chairman said.

NFTA Executive Director Larry Meckler also said the terminal design has stood up well to the fluid nature of air travel.

"We've been very lucky with how flexible and adaptable it has turned out to be," Meckler said. "Any need to expand is way down the pike."

Beefed-up security requirements will bring another set of changes this year that won't be visible to the traveling public. The NFTA will invest $27.9 million on a state-of-the-art baggage handling system that will incorporate high-tech screening equipment.

"It's driven by [Transportation Security Administration] needs, but we're hopeful it will also speed the process of getting baggage on and off aircraft," Stamm said. "That's, frankly, an area where we can do a better job."

The NFTA also plans to keep pressure on airlines serving Buffalo to continue exploring new routes. Direct flights to new destinations and additional flights to existing cities will be priorities.

"That's our biggest challenge. We're thrilled with the level of service we're getting, but based on how full a lot of our flights are, the demand is there to offer more," Stamm said.

That dialogue will also include US Airways, the airport's No. 2 carrier, which has recently emerged from bankruptcy and has completed a merger with Phoenix-based America West.

"They're a key partner for Buffalo, and now that they are stable, there's no reason why they can't explore new service," he said.

Wally Smith, vice president of AAA of Western and Central New York, said the firm's clients are always looking for the reduced hassle of direct flights. He said the recent additions of direct routes from Buffalo to Orlando and Las Vegas has been great for Western New Yorkers, but the wish list should include more "sunshine" spots. "Something direct to Miami

would nice because of the cruise business based there. If cruise passengers miss their connecting flights, there's a danger of missing their ships," Smith said.

He said Buffalo to San Diego service would also be a strong draw for travelers booked on cruises departing the California port.

The wish list should also include: Aruba, Cancun, London and Paris.

"There are charter flights to Cancun in the winter, but it's a year-round destination for honeymooners," he said. "It would also be handy to have at least one direct route to Europe."