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Falls airport keys on cargo, charter flights $34 million renovation could bring new life

The longest runway in upstate New York stretches out like a deserted highway, a 9,825-foot ribbon of concrete with barely any traffic.

Niagara Falls International Airport has been that way for decades, primarily used by private pilots in small planes, an occasional charter flight, with a few flurries of commercial activity over the years that eventually faded away. The only regular activity comes from the Air Force, which shares the runways with Air Reserve and National Guard units that train at the adjoining Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

The moribund nature of the civilian side of the airfield is going to change, say officials of the Niagara Frontier Transporation Authority, which owns the airport.

They've said that before, too, but Lawrence M. Meckler, the NFTA's executive director, believes this time is the real thing.

"I feel this is the best chance we've ever had to capitalize on the potential of that airport," said Meckler, who joined the transportation authority in 1977 and has headed it since 1998.

"It seems all the stars are alligned," he said. "Everything is coming together at the same time."

Recent developments include:

* Two flights a week to Myrtle Beach, S.C., beginning March 7, the first regularly scheduled passenger flights from the Niagara Falls airport since 1988.

* Talks aimed at bringing cargo business to the airport are scheduled next month between NFTA officials, Polar Air, an international cargo company, and the CSX railroad company.

* The NFTA signed a 20-year contract with Niagara Cargo Port to steer international cargo business to the airport.

* The NFTA has approved a contract with Innova Aviation Consulting of Chevy Chase, Md., to help attract freight and charter traffic.

Local officials expressed excitment about the Myrtle Beach run, which will feature junkets for golfers to one of the best golf destinations in the United States.

"Someone has to take the first step," said William L. Ross, chairman of the Niagara County Legislature. "Myrtle Air opens the door for other companies to follow. It's like we have a new pioneer on the Niagara Frontier. We haven't had anyone take that step for years. This is like a transfusion for us."

> Low landing fees

The biggest advantage for cargo carriers are the lower landing fees at the Niagara Falls airport, Meckler said. Planes can land in Niagara Falls for a third of the cost of touching down at the Buffalo airport - and one-fourteenth of what Toronto charges.

A fledgling cargo business was launched at the airport three years ago with Texas-based Kitty Hawk Air Cargo.

Niagara Cargo is expected to focus on goods coming from China and India. Niagara Cargo is a consortium of three businesses: Vista Cargo International, which operates a 400,000-square-foot air freight-handling depot at Toronto's Pearson International Airport; Atlas International Freight Forwarding, a Canadian company that offers shipping services around the globe, and Speed Transportation, a Buffalo trucking company with more than a half-million square feet of warehouse space.

"Buffalo cannot handle the big international charters and the huge cargo planes," Meckler said, referring to the 8,000-foot runway at the Cheektowaga airport. "This, then, will become the first major role of the new Niagara Falls airport - charter flights and cargo business."

The air cargo group expects to have a minimum of one Boeing 747 a week coming into the Niagara Falls airport, the NFTA said.

Polar Air, based in Purchase, N.Y., is a global leader in international air cargo, with flights to Europe, Asia and the Americas. The company began scheduled weekly service to Beijing earlier this month. CSX operates rail lines throughout the eastern seaboard and Ontario.

"There has been a lot of legwork that put us in the position where we can now have some meaningful success at the Niagara Falls airport," Meckler said.

Some of the legwork is being done by NFTA consultants in Asia, who are trying to drum up cargo business for the little- used airport.

"We have some very strong leads toward making the airport a cargo hub for Western New York and Southern Ontario," said Gregory Stamm, NFTA chairman. "We have made the development of the Niagara Falls airport one of the highest priorities of the NFTA. We have three or four meetings a week on the Niagara Airport, so things are bubbling."

Stamm, an attorney, said the NFTA has received considerable interest from people in the regional business community and on the Canadian side, particularly in connection with charter flights and cargo.

> Passengers in future?

But cargo is only part of the picture, the NFTA says.

"We can no longer look at the Niagara Falls airport in a vaccuum," Meckler said. "We have to look at it from the new perspective of the changes that have happened in the city and the region, particularly the Seneca Niagara Casino and all the tourist development just north of the border."

As it is now, many tourists don't even know there is an airport on Niagara Falls Boulevard, a mere 10-minute drive from the falls and the vast array of tourist attractions on both sides of the border, including three casinos, a dozen ritzy, high-rise hotels and scores of restaurants.

A $34 million project to revamp the Niagara Falls airport includes a new $27 million passenger terminal; $7 million for the apron and roadways for the new terminal; a 68,600-square-foot apron capable of handling large cargo planes, and a paved parking and loading area next to the airfield hangars.

It sounds promising, but Niagara County Legislator Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls, is not buying it.

"The NFTA has proven with its dismal track record over the past 40 years that it cannot run this airport," Kimble said. "It's all smoke and mirrors. Every few months they trot out a new plan to appease the public, but nothing has changed. Here we go again."

Kimble maintains the NFTA's primary focus has always been and will continue to be the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and she has long been a strong advocate of privatizing the airport.

The upcoming meetings between the NFTA and cargo operators were arranged by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, DNew York, who recently secured $1 million in federal funding for a new cargo apron to handle large transports such as Polar Air's Boeing 747s.

"We're looking for big things for Niagara Falls," Meckler said. "The momentum is there. Myrtle Beach Direct and the talks to bring in charter flights and cargo business are a new beginning for the airport. We think this is a terrific market and we're going to pounce on it."

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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