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TOUGHER AIRPORT SECURITY TAKES RETAIL TOLL

The food stands and retail shops at Buffalo Niagara International Airport are quiet following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

With many travelers choosing to make only essential plane trips, and nonticketed airport visitors barred from entering concession areas that lie beyond the airport's security checkpoint, business is bad.

"It's a difficult situation all around," said Lawrence Meckler, executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. "Our concessionaires are losing money, and as a consequence, the authority is losing money."

The NFTA relies on food and retail commissions for 4.8 percent of its airport operating budget, or about $1.4 million annually.

"It's not a main source of revenue, but it's important to us," Meckler said. "When we add those losses to what we're losing in parking revenues, and new expenses related to operating at Level IV security, it becomes a bigger deal."

While the NFTA is working on plans to move the security checkpoint far enough down the entrance corridor to open access to many of the food stands and other services, it will be a month or more to move the relocation through design, Federal Aviation Administration approval and construction stages.

"We're working toward it, but it can't happen overnight, as much as we'd like it to," Meckler added.

Nothing about the airport experience has been the same since the Sept. 11 hijackings, which led to disasters at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania. No parking is allowed within 300 feet of the terminal, bomb dogs patrol the corridors sniffing for trouble, and travelers face questions and baggage searches as they embark on their journeys.

The significance of the change is not lost on Romanos Georges, the airport's resident barber since the late 1960s.

"I've been cutting hair at the airport for 33 years now -- first at the old building, and now here," Georges said. "They took away my razors and scissors because of the new security rules, but it's what they've got to do. This is bigger than me and my business."

Though the veteran barber is still allowed to use his electric shears, his location in the airport all but cuts him off from customers anyway. Only ticketed passengers can get to his shop, which is tucked behind the security checkpoint.

"Today I have one customer," he explained. "Ninety percent of my customers aren't going anywhere. They come out here just to get their hair cut, and now they can't come in. That's just the way it is."

For Buffalo's Delaware North Cos., whose airport concessions division, CA One Services, operates at 30 airports around the United States, the situation is difficult on a much larger scale. The food stand and retail shop operator estimates it has lost $6 million in revenues since Sept. 11, with sales down by 50 to 60 percent from normal levels.

"We're doing what we can to respond to the current situation. We're taking it day by day," said CA One spokesman John Moscato. "Every airport is a little different, depending on who has access to what, so it requires a new strategy."

At the Buffalo Niagara airport, a temporary food stand, located in the baggage claim area, is part of that improvisation. "Meeters and greeters," as Moscato refers to friends and family who are restricted to the front corridor now when they come to the airport, are once again able to get cold beverages, hot coffee and a selection of baked goods and sandwiches, which had been off-limits because the food court was located beyond the security gates.

The lower level of the airport is rapidly becoming a satellite food court, with Mattie's Red Hots, a locally owned food company, joining the Delaware North subsidiary with an off-site food stand.

But those small fixes are not likely to restore enough revenue to prevent work-force cutbacks at CA One.

"We are planning for layoffs and reduced hours. We may need to reduce by as much as 30 percent across the board," Moscato said.

CA One currently employs about 3,300 staffers at the 30 airports it serves.

Maria Westman, owner of Monarch Cos., which operates a magazine and sundry shop, and an upscale gift shop, at the airport, has also been making nearly daily adjustments to her businesses.

"Cutting staff and hours is the last thing I want to do, so we're finding other ways to cut costs and offset our losses," Westman said.

She held a brainstorming session with employees to come up with ways to cut overhead. The shops are now doing their own newsstand stocking and garbage removal to reduce expenses. They've also adopted tighter inventory-control policies to better meet sales demand.

Like Georges, Westman has always enjoyed a customer base that includes many local residents, in addition to travelers. Her unique collection of handbags and luggage, including Gucci, Coach and Tumi, has led to strong repeat shopper support.

"They can't get to me, so we're finding ways to get to them. I've taken phone orders, we do deliveries, and we'll even meet customers outside the restricted zone to make the sale," she said.

Earlier this week, Westman hauled a variety of purses to the front lobby for a customer who drove over from Orchard Park. After the woman made her selection, she ferried her credit card back through security, and returned moments later with her receipt and her wrapped purchase.

"You have to stay flexible in these inflexible times," she said.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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