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The NFTA is making a $10.9 million investment in expanding its shiny new airport based in large part on the hope that local snowbirds who have been flocking to Toronto for their tropical trips will fly from Buffalo, instead.

Last week, commissioners approved a 400-foot addition to the west concourse that will include two jetway-equipped gates and something the airport has never had -- a permanent facility for handling international travel.

They did so in response to lobbying by Santo Tours, which began operating a weekly flight to Cancun, Mexico, last December and expects to see Caribbean/Mexican travel more than quadruple to 600 people per week by the end of this year.

"It was the catalyst for us to consider the expansion," said Commissioner James M. Wadsworth, chairman of the NFTA Aviation Committee.

The 31,500-square-foot addition, which is scheduled to open in October 1999, will include space for hundreds of travelers to be quickly processed through U.S. Customs and immigration.

Ultimately, Buffalo, instead of Toronto, may become an arrival point for Japanese and European tourists on their way to Niagara Falls.

For now, though, Santo Tours believes it is beginning to capture a large portion of the thousands of Western New York, Rochester-area and southern Ontario vacationers who have been using Toronto's Pearson Airport as their departure point for the Caribbean.

"We plan to be around a long time," said Robert Crivelli, vice president of sales and marketing. "There's a lot of business in this town."

Santo, which was founded in 1974 by Salvatore De Santo, began by offering charter packages to Las Vegas and expanded over the years to organizing charter packages not only from Buffalo, but Cleveland, Florida and Pittsburgh.

The Cheektowaga company did occasional flights to Caribbean destinations, but not consistently and not out of the Buffalo airport terminal.

De Santo died in 1994 and the company was purchased last year by Adventure Tours USA of Dallas. Adventure Tours, a major operator of Caribbean tours, had the deep pockets to help Santo expand and begin offering regular international service, Crivelli said.

"It gave us the support and financing to go into the next decade," he said.

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority originally planned to include an area for international travel when it began planning for the airport terminal in the early 1990s but was forced to eliminate the facility because of budget constraints.

The $55 million terminal opened last November with 15 gates, but only five weeks later the authority was actively exploring expansion. Besides the pressure from Santo beginning international charters, the NFTA also was negotiating a contract for its last open gate.

Wadsworth said the looming space crunch coupled with the new international service made the case for the expansion.

"To do a facility for international flights without the gates wouldn't have been cost-effective," he said.

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