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Frontier is flying high amid passenger boom at Buffalo airport

Managers at Buffalo Niagara International Airport don’t need official statistics to recognize the success of Frontier Airlines since its arrival in December.

They are all too familiar with the long lines at Frontier’s check-in counter. Ditto for the planes packed to 94 percent daily capacity.

And now airport officials must make room for the even larger aircraft Frontier dispatches to handle the big crowds at Buffalo.

Indeed, the airline announced Thursday it is adding two more cities as non-stop destinations – Austin, Texas, and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. – beginning in April.

William R. Vanecek, director of aviation for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, said Frontier’s 57 flights to four Florida cities added 10,000 seats to the airport’s December schedule alone.

“It’s just amazing to me,” Vanecek said. “To load at that level is incredible.

“That tells me they are looking at this market very closely and evaluating,” he added. “Maybe they will add seats and maybe down the road there will be something even more exciting.”

Frontier and most other airlines at Buffalo are enjoying boom times. Passenger totals are up a significant 7.5 percent over the same period last year, mostly driven by Frontier’s debut on Dec. 6. But other airlines are busy too – American is up 8 percent, JetBlue 8 percent, and United 2 percent (in reality as much as 24 percent after it also started employing bigger aircraft at Buffalo).  Southwest is down slightly, Vanecek said, but “steady.”

The NFTA reported in November that all five carriers then serving the Cheektowaga airfield marked enplanement increases – the first time since 2011 that monthly totals of departing passengers reflected a positive trend. Prior to November, recession, high fuel prices, airline mergers and the fluctuating Canadian dollar had all combined to keep the flow of air travelers in and out of Buffalo over the past few years healthy but relatively flat.

Frontier’s numbers may drop when summer returns and the volume of those seeking Florida’s warm rays declines, Vanecek acknowledges. And the airline’s $39 introductory fares also produced a dash to the Sunshine State.

But the addition of non-stop flights to Miami, Orlando, Fort Myers and Tampa is a hit, with numbers Vanecek labels “absurdly high,” mainly because of  no need to change planes at another airport in between.The new Austin flights mark the only non-stop service to any Texas city from Buffalo. Both new services will initially involve one trip per week to Austin and one to Raleigh-Durham and back.

“If you’re in the right market, non-stops will always be more successful,” Vanecek said. “Time is money or more leisure time.”

Miami’s addition to the non-stop list of Buffalo destinations is also significant, he said. Many Buffalo customers now sign up for the easy flight to make cruise connections at the Port of Miami.

Vanecek noted that Frontier had been essentially filling 180-seat planes, the biggest aircraft serving Buffalo. But now the airline is upgrading to 236-seat aircraft for some flights.

“That’s a big deal,” he said.

Still, more traffic can be expected in the coming months at Buffalo. Vanecek said the weak Canadian dollar and convenience of the Buffalo airport continues to drive Ontario customers over the border. He noted that 84 percent of the cars parked at Niagara Falls International Airport (also managed by the NFTA) carry Ontario license plates, with a significant but undetermined number at Buffalo, too.

New service also lies ahead. Frontier begins non-stop flights to Denver on April 9, while OneJet flies to Albany beginning Feb. 13 and later this year to Raleigh-Durham. Vanecek said the airport expects that travelers with business and government appointments in Albany will flock to the 35-passenger jets.

“It’s geared to one-day visits to Albany,” he said.

The airport is also making physical alterations to accommodate the new activity. The NFTA plans a $4.6 million “remain overnight” project providing more space for planes to park at Buffalo to handle early departures the next morning.

“That’s important because the busiest schedule is that 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. time period,” Vanecek said.

Buffalo also plans a major overhaul of its terminal interior as well as a new baggage handling system, which hasn't received major attention since the new airport debuted two decades ago.  The approximately $75 million project is slated for completion in 2020.

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