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Building a new concourse plus other improvements totaling $90 million at Buffalo Niagara International Airport could play a crucial role in attracting Southwest Airlines and other low-cost carriers to Western New York, local transportation officials say.

The airport expansion will put the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in a position to accommodate new low-cost carriers that want to serve the market, said Lawrence M. Meckler, executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

"In order for us to legitimately sit down with a low-fare carrier such as Southwest and try to convince them to come here, we have to be able to say we have a place for them to go," Meckler said. "Without the new facility, I think a lot of our efforts would be futile."

No airlines have yet committed to leasing any of the seven additional gates planned for the East Concourse extension. But airport officials say they're confident the gates will be used.

In the past couple of years, discount carriers such as AirTran, Shuttle America and Vanguard Airlines began low-fare flights between Buffalo and Atlanta, Albany, Chicago and other cities.

All 17 gates in the terminal are occupied: the 15 gates that were part of the $56 million terminal that opened in November 1997 and two others that opened when the West Concourse extension was completed last fall.

A couple of airlines are looking to move into their own gates.

Vanguard now shares a gate with Delta Air Lines.

JetBlue Airways, which plans to start flying to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport in February, will share a gate with United Airlines.

Meckler said the airport could now accommodate another airline, if one wanted to move into the terminal.

"We'd be willing to squeeze anybody in," Meckler said. "I'm not sure they'd be satisfied with being squeezed in."

The NFTA board's approval of the airport expansion already helped attract JetBlue to Buffalo, Meckler said.

"It played a part," said Gareth Edmondson-Jones, a JetBlue spokesman.

While pleased with JetBlue and the other discount airlines, the NFTA still hopes to attract Southwest and other low-cost carriers to Buffalo.

Dallas-based Southwest, the nation's premier low-fare carrier, has expressed an interest in Buffalo but has made no commitment.

"We're competing with other cities to get low-cost service," Meckler said. "If you can't provide the right facility for them, you're already behind."

Southwest's top official stressed the importance of that when he announced earlier this month that his airline would begin service in Albany this spring.

"The timing of our announcement has been made possible by the availability of the airport's accessible new facilities," Herb Kelleher, Southwest's chief executive officer and president, said of the improved Albany airport.

In the past two years, Albany International Airport spent more than $180 million on construction and renovations in hopes of adding discount carriers like Southwest. The work included a $6.2 million terminal expansion with two jetways and six ticket counters. Southwest is expected to move into the terminal this spring.

The work, Kelleher said, "will allow us to extend our competitive low fares and convenient service to the Albany area."

While there's some risk that not all of the new gates at Buffalo's airport will be used right away, there's a greater risk if the new gates aren't added, Meckler said.

Discount carriers such as Southwest could be persuaded to expand into markets where the facilities are better, thus depriving local air travelers of lower fares.

"Clearly, they needed expanded capacity there," said Julie R. Hazzan, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership's communications director. "It's a pro-active move on the part of the NFTA. It's something other communities have also done as part of their plans to attract and retain carriers.

"If we can guarantee them their aircraft will get in and out easy here, that will definitely work in our favor," she said.

The new Buffalo Niagara International Airport terminal opened in 1997, part of a $187 million overhaul of the airport that included a 1,300-space parking garage, two-level access ramp and a circulatory road.

The terminal opened with 15 gates, and all but two were occupied from the beginning.

Meckler said the NFTA didn't build more gates to begin with because the number of airlines and passengers flying in and out of Buffalo didn't justify the expense.

The discount airlines that arrived and the passengers they're attracting have put the NFTA in a position to afford building the east extension, Meckler said.

Parking, food and retail revenue, for example, came in 18 percent over budget from April through October last year.

The NFTA is borrowing the money to pay for the airport improvements, and hopes to be reimbursed by the federal and state governments in coming years for much of the cost.

"Even without the federal reimbursement, it's still financially feasible," Meckler said.

The expansion plan at the airport includes a new concourse, passenger parking lot and additional aircraft parking space.

Construction work began in September for the $46 million East Concourse extension. Four of the gates are scheduled to open by next September and the remaining three by December 2000.

The seven-gate extension will be built with the same materials and have the same look as the rest of the terminal, said Walter D. Zmuda, the NFTA's general manager for engineering.

"It'll be architecturally seamless," Zmuda said.

The 110,000-square-foot addition will be roughly one-third the size of the existing terminal.

Two "moving sidewalks" will move passengers through parts of the new concourse like an escalator -- only a level one. The two moving sidewalks cost $2 million.

The new concourse will include more restrooms and concessions.

The seating areas where passengers wait to board their flights will be slightly larger at each gate in the new concourse than the existing ones -- 2,000 square feet versus 1,800 square feet.

The expanded parking lot for passengers and access road improvements will cost $26 million, about $9 million more than planners initially projected last summer.

Work on the parking lot started this month. The airport expects about 1,824 additional long-term parking spaces will be built. Now there are 1,940 long-term parking spaces, 1,400 on the main lot and 540 in overflow lots.

About 800 new spaces will open by June, with the remaining spaces available by September.

The demolition of the old Westinghouse plant has made space available for the new parking.

The airport improvements also include providing 50,000 square yards of additional aircraft parking space. Aircraft will be parked on both sides of the concourse extension. The apron expansion will cost $17.6 million. The first phase of the apron expansion, a $2 million taxiway, was completed last month.

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