Ninety-nine years ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright, refining a promising glider, weren't sure adding a motor would be possible.
In the swiftly changing world of aviation, seeing 99 years into the future would strain any forecaster's abilities. But if all goes as planned, the Niagara Falls International Airport soon will be turned over to a Spanish company - for 99 years.
Beginning this week, people and organizations interested in the decision have their last chance to speak out, as the Federal Aviation Administration opens a 60-day period for comments on the proposed deal.
The contract would make Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte - a $2 billion, publicly traded Spanish company - responsible for the airport's operating costs. Cintra agreed to spend at least $10.1 million over a 13-year period on marketing, promotion, capital improvements and drawing up a master plan, although Cintra has said it actually intends to spend that sum within five years.
In exchange, Cintra has the airport for 99 years, rent-free unless it lands more than 450,000 passengers. Last year about 2,500 people, carried mostly by private planes, used the airport.
The comment period, required by law, is designed to give people interested in the airport deal, including the community around the airport, one last chance to tell the FAA anything the federal airport regulators should know about before concluding the arrangement, said Kevin Willis, FAA compliance officer.
Could local people say anything at this point that would impact the FAA's decision?
"I have no idea," Willis said, speaking from Washington, D.C. "I have no idea what the nature of the information might be."
Whether opponents of the Cintra deal could influence or delay it at this point remains unclear.
U.S. Rep. John LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, whose district includes the airport, has urged the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which owns the airport, to include performance guarantees so it could get out of the arrangement if Cintra fails to deliver on its promises.
But the negotiated contract includes no such clauses, and NFTA officials have said that the airport has been doing so little business that expecting Cintra to agree to performance standards would be unrealistic.
LaFalce, the highest ranking official to publicly oppose the contract, has been unavailable to comment on the matter.
The NFTA's official public hearing on the contract has not yet been scheduled, but will probably be held the third week of March, said NFTA general counsel David Gregory.
The NFTA and Cintra have set two hearings with Niagara Falls and county officials: with the Niagara Falls City Council at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday in City Hall, and with the Niagara County Legislature at 7 p.m. March 6, in the county courthouse, Park Avenue, Lockport.
Comments can be sent to: FAA, Office of Chief Counsel, Attention: Rules Docket, AGC 200, Docket No. 28895, 800 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C., 20591.
Issues that the FAA would consider, Willis said, include keeping the airport accessible to the public at "fair and reasonable terms."
That doesn't mean Cintra has to start passenger service. It means that the airport needs to remain open to private planes, as it is today.
The FAA wants to be sure the airport contract meets all applicable regulations and laws, Willis said. It wants to be sure that commitments linked to past federal aid at the airport are upheld, and that the airport doesn't engage in economic discrimination.
But the FAA would not determine whether the 99-year lease is in the best interests of the community, Willis said, adding, "That's up to the sponsor," in this case the NFTA, which has focused most of its airport investment at its other airport, Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga.
After the 60-day period, the FAA will review the comments, Willis said, then make a decision. How long that will take remains unclear, Willis said. The Niagara Falls airport is only the second of five sites being transferred to private ownership under a federal program.
Once the FAA review is complete, the contract is considered signed, said Lawrence M. Meckler, NFTA executive director.
Cintra officials say a preliminary marketing study has prompted the company to consider the tourist charter business as a main target.
That would dovetail nicely with the kind of projects that Niagara Falls Redevelopment, the city's master developer, is trying to encourage in downtown Niagara Falls, said Roger Trevino, the developer's spokesman.
"It's great to see private investors in the airport," Trevino said. "But we'd like certain issues addressed that I'm sure they're cognizant of."
Specifically, Cintra should give high priority to building a jetway, the kind of gate that allows travelers to board and leave passenger jets without descending an outside staircase and incurring exposure to the weather, Trevino said.
"A jetway would make the airport more user-friendly and make Niagara Falls more attractive to passenger traffic, even charter flights," he argued.
With most of the airport located within the Town of Niagara, town officials hope Cintra succeeds in attracting business to the site.
"We're excited, of course," Niagara Supervisor Steven Richards said. "We feel that with the airport in the hands of private industry, the land around the airport itself will be developed faster."
That would mean jobs and tax revenue for the town, he said, the only way the town can benefit directly from the airport since Cintra would not be obliged to provide payments in lieu of taxes.
The town already has staked its bet on Cintra's success. It has optioned about 220 acres directly north of the runway, "the best land at the airport," Richards said with a salesman's smile. "Right off the taxiways, perfect for air cargo, maintenance, what have you."
Since the airport is Cintra's initial entry into the American market, Richards said he felt confident that the company would pour investment into the site. "I really feel Cintra is going to commit there big-time," Richards said. "It's going to take several years, obviously, but before they're done I'll bet we see more development there than we have in a long, long time."
If the Cintra deal is signed, the 914th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve will have a new partner at the airport.
For years, the Air Force and the NFTA jointly have operated the airport, with the military providing such services as snowplowing, and crash and rescue coverage.
The airport's main runway will need ongoing repairs, but the Air Force is confident the details can be worked out with Cintra and the NFTA, said Neil Nolf, base spokesman.
"We're looking over the long-term and short-term options, and we'll meet with our partners to plan a course of action," Nolf said. The repairs, needed because of routine weather exposure, aren't serious enough to require shutting the runway down, Nolf said.
But they will have to be made in coming years if the airport is to remain open.
"We've had a long-term investment over the years in keeping the runway safe," Nolf said.
Fixing a small part of the runway would be less expensive, but redoing the entire landing strip might cost in the neighborhood of $3 million, Meckler said. Like the NFTA, Cintra can apply for federal aid, but would only get reimbursed half as much -- 40 percent of the project cost, compared with 80 percent for the NFTA.
The need for repairs would not delay the contract, Meckler said.
The NFTA has worked hard on getting the best operator for the Niagara Falls airport, he said. The agency, he added, remains excited about the prospect of Cintra becoming a stakeholder in the Niagara Falls, representing as it does the "worldwide focus we were looking for."