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FAA CANCELS MEETING ON NIAGARA FALLS AIRPORT CONTRACT

Federal Aviation Administration officials canceled a meeting on the Niagara Falls International Airport deal, originally set for Tuesday, saying that their staff wanted more time to review the situation.

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which has advocated leasing the airport to a Spanish company for 99 years, said it remained confident the FAA would approve the deal.

But the decision has encouraged critics of the NFTA contract, who have urged the FAA to either reject the contract or insist on changes that ensure development of the airport.

"The NFTA deal would allow that airport to remain as underused as it's been for the last 25 years," said Richard Taylor, a Buffalo businessman who flew to Washington, D.C., two weeks ago to encourage federal officials to scrutinize the contract. "Now we have a few weeks, at least, to try to get the message out that that airport's too important to stay under wraps for another 99 years."

The meeting was originally scheduled to address any issues the FAA might have with the contract, or set a timetable for implementation if there were no outstanding issues, said NFTA spokesman Douglas Hartmayer.

The delay does not mean that the FAA has substantial doubts about the deal, Hartmayer said. "We're fully confident this will be a successful lease agreement and come out to a successful conclusion," he said.

It's not clear when the review process will be finished, said FAA spokeswoman Marcia Adams.

"We're still reviewing the application," Adams said.

The Niagara Falls airport, operated by the NFTA since 1969, has had little commercial use. The transportation agency has focused its investment on its other airport, Buffalo Niagara International. The airport features the only runway between Newburgh, N.Y., and Toronto able to land Boeing 747s and other jumbo jets, which the Buffalo airport cannot accommodate.

In January, the NFTA announced it would lease the airport to Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte, based in Madrid.

The deal calls for Cintra to invest $10.1 million within 14 years after the contract begins, including a marketing program, and cover the airport's operating costs. Cintra will not have to pay any rent, under terms of the lease, unless its annual passenger tally tops 450,000. Last year, the tally was about 2,500.

During yearlong negotiations, local leaders, including U.S. Rep. John LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, called on the NFTA to include some form of performance standards that would allow the contract to be challenged if development did not occur.

No such clauses were included in the contract. That would have been a deal-breaker with Cintra, NFTA Chairman Luiz Kahl said afterward.

Supporters and opponents of the Cintra contract crowded a March public hearing to praise and lambaste the proposed deal.

Among them was Peter Tower, former president of Buffalo-based Tower Group International, one of the largest customs brokers and international freight forwarders in North America. He urged the FAA to reject any deal that didn't include development of an air cargo hub at Niagara Falls.

Newark and LaGuardia airports are jammed, causing a two- to three-day delay for international shipments, he said. That makes the Niagara Falls facility a natural for the booming international air freight business, and the airport contract should encourage that development, Tower said.

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