Share this article

print logo

10-year ascent to sky-high success As passenger volume rises, fares fall, terminal thriving as regional hub for air travel

The new Buffalo Niagara International Airport terminal debuted 10 years ago Saturday, bringing with it hopes for lower fares, better connections and a much-improved gateway image.

There's strong evidence the $187 million facility has met -- and exceeded -- those expectations.

Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways have come to town, passenger volume is up by almost 75 percent, and average fares have dropped by a third.

"This is something we had to get right for Buffalo, and we got it right," said Robert D. Gioia, who served as chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority during the construction of the terminal.

"It's beautiful, efficient and has changed air travel in Western New York."

The differences are not lost on the traveling public.

"I see my grandchildren a lot more often," said Adele Miller of East Aurora, who was headed to Chicago to visit them this week via Southwest.

She recalled paying more than $400 for the round-trip ticket in the late 1990s, a price that more often limited her visits to a once-a-year, thousand-mile road trip. The tab for this week's trip was $170.

Roger Thompson, of Thornhill, Ont., a suburb north of Toronto, is also a fan of the Buffalo airport, forgoing Toronto's Pearson International Airport for what he called a "far superior alternative."

The Atlanta-bound business traveler said it was worth driving an extra hundred miles and crossing the Peace Bridge to catch an AirTran Airways flight.

"I'll end up spending nearly the same amount of time traveling and save about $200. And I'll have a plate of real Buffalo wings . . . before I take off," Thompson said.

Thompson is part of a growing number of Southern Ontario residents who frequent the Buffalo airport. The NFTA estimates that Canadians now comprise upwards of 25 percent of airport users, up from fewer than 5 percent a decade ago.

In September 1997, Buffalo had the dubious distinction of having the second-highest airfares in the country, with the average round-trip ticket costing $280, a price that climbs to $383 in today's dollars when adjusted for inflation. As of this September, Buffalo's average fare had tumbled to $259, 87th among the Top 100 U.S. airports.

Businesses big and small have been thrilled with the how the lower fares have improved their airborne mobility and have pared travel budgets. At M&T Bank, one of the area's largest employers, the savings have been jaw-dropping.

"We fly 5,500 round trips a year, so it's a key expense," said Keith Belanger, M&T's senior vice president for corporate services.

Belanger said the average price of a round-trip ticket to send bank employees to such frequent destinations as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., was $500 as recently as 1999. Now it is $250.

"That's a $1.3 million differential for us," Belanger said. "That's exactly what we hoped would result from bringing in low-fare competitors."

Physically, the 10-year-old terminal, with its soaring glass and steel exterior, is light-years beyond the dowdy, outdated, two-terminal facility it replaced.

"It was an eyesore; there's no argument about that," said NFTA Executive Director Lawrence M. Meckler. "It made a terrible first impression."

The terminal's high style is matched by its operational efficiency, keeping gate and landing fees to airlines well below the national average, while facilitating the quick turnaround times on which the no-frills airlines rely to keep costs down. The NFTA, aided by a 22-member regional air service panel, whose co-chairman is Buffalo News Publisher Stanford Lipsey, made no secret of its goal of building a facility that would land Southwest.

"We did our homework," Gioia said. "It was a defined strategy."

Southwest, which began Buffalo service in October 2000, has not disappointed. Its much-touted "Southwest effect," offering low fares to popular destinations, made it the market's No. 1 airline in mid-2005. It is the first airline to surpass US Airways in Buffalo in about 30 years.

Southwest offers 16 flights a day, including nonstops to Baltimore; Chicago's Midway Airport; Orlando and Tampa, Fla.; Phoenix; and Las Vegas, and will add service to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in February.

JetBlue Airways, the airport's No. 3 airline, behind Southwest and US Airways, also prospered from its decision to land here in February 2000. JetBlue spokesman Sebastian White said the airline's 11 daily flights -- eight to New York's JFK International and three to Boston -- typically leave Buffalo "packed to the gills."

US Airways has remained a fierce competitor, sharpening its fares and adding new routes to fend off the no-frills airlines. Increased flights to New York's LaGuardia and Boston's Logan, coupled with price cuts, are working in its favor.

The airline continues to offer more daily flights than any other carrier, with 34 of them, using a mix of full-size aircraft, regional jets and smaller commuter planes.

The NFTA has spent an additional $193 million since the terminal opened Nov. 3, 1997, including $90 million to expand the complex from 15 gates to 22. Tens of millions of dollars also have been spent to add more parking, improve runways and tweak roadways.

In 1996, the last full year the old terminal was in use, the airport counted 2.9 million passengers. In 2006, the count had swelled to 5.04 million, a milestone that was not forecast to be hit until 2020. The annual head count is expected to reach 6 million by 2013.

The airport has struggled with how to squeeze mandated passenger security checkpoints and bulky baggage-scanning machinery into a pre- 9/1 1 facility.

The airport's artisan-designed terrazzo entry corridor, once a key visual feature, is now all but obscured by serpentine lines of passengers waiting to pass through the checkpoint. During peak hours, the queues can extend through the ticketing hall and out the front doors of the terminal. "It's nothing we could have planned for," Meckler said, "but we're doing everything we can to cope."

Quick fixes such as adding checkpoint screening lanes, including a new lane before the end of the year, and repositioning the waiting line are helping. But major relief is expected by next fall with a new, two-story structure that will house a new $27 million baggage-handling system on the lower level and an expanded security checkpoint on the upper floor.

Cannon Design has just started work on the reconfigured checkpoint, which is expected to free up space in the main corridor and add security lanes. The airport also is exploring ways to expand parking beyond its current 6,900 spaces. The estimated price tag on those two initiatives is expected to top $50 million.


There are no comments - be the first to comment