Buffalo Niagara International Airport was braced for record Thanksgiving travel crowds, but the passenger crush never materialized.
In fact, the holiday traveler count was down by nearly 3,000 from a year ago.
"We're certainly surprised," said Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer. "Based on national projections and what the airlines were saying, we anticipated some really high numbers, but that didn't happen."
The NFTA confirmed Wednesday the flier count from Nov. 18 through 26 totaled 69,851, down from 72,823 for the comparable nine-day Thanksgiving holiday period in 2006.
However, the Canadian Thanksgiving week, Oct. 7 through 13, did set a seven-day record, with 63,212 passengers passing through the security checkpoint at the Buffalo airport.
Nationally, an all-time high 27 million Americans were expected to fly between Nov. 16 and the Monday after Thanksgiving, setting the stage for coast-to-coast airport frenzy. While no actual countrywide tallies have been released, several major airports reported relatively uneventful Thanksgiving periods.
The Federal Aviation Administration reported an increase in weather-caused delays and cancellations on Nov. 20, 21 and 25. But it also indicated commercial airlines made only light use of military airspace, which had been opened to accommodate the expected logjam of holiday flights.
Although the overall Thanksgiving flier count at the Buffalo airport was off by 2,972, two days did surpass Thanksgiving 2006 levels. On Monday, Nov. 19, 8,639 travelers flew out of the Buffalo airport, compared to 7,857 on the prior year's pre-Thanksgiving Monday. Wednesday totals also surpassed the same day in 2006, at 8,654, up from 8,282.
As in 2006, the Monday after Thanksgiving was the busiest flying day, with leftover holiday travelers mixing with business fliers to bring the daily total to 8,685. However, that count didn't come close to the 9,858 passengers who flew on the corresponding Monday a year earlier.
During the Canadian Thanksgiving travel period, the airport recorded a single-day high of 10,162 fliers.
"We don't see these lower numbers as any indication of the performance of the airport. Our year-to-date counts are ahead of last year and we expect to set another record for the full year," Hartmayer said.
In 2006, the Buffalo airport passenger count surpassed 5 million for the first time, serving 5.04 million travelers. Through the first 10 months of 2007, passenger totals are running 5.5 percent ahead of last year.
The lower-than-expected Thanksgiving airport traffic also came as surprise to Wally Smith, vice president of AAA of Central and Western New York.
"It's kind of strange," Smith said. "It could be related to what equipment the airlines are using to get their load factors as high as possible."
He noted many airlines are increasing their use of smaller, regional jets on shorter flights to boost their efficiencies, which affects total passenger volume. Smith said he's seen no trend data indicating an overall drop in flyer enthusiasm, despite a bumpy period of nationwide flight delays and a dip in on-time performance.
"We're in the travel business and we're doing quite well booking flights several months out. We don't see an impending change in travel appetite," he added.
On the operational side, the absence of capacity crowds combined with a heightened state of holiday readiness, made for unexpectedly smooth passenger processing at the Buffalo airport's security checkpoint.
"We kept expecting to get hit with a rush of people and it didn't happen," said Brett O'Neill, local spokesman for the federal Transportation Security Administration.
TSA managers had boosted on-duty staff by 15 percent for holiday shifts anticipating high traveler numbers, O'Neill said.
"We didn't send anybody home, just in case, so we probably got people through the checkpoint much faster than anybody expected," he said.