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AIRPORT NEEDS GIMMICK WITH CREATIVE ALLURE

magine you're flying somewhere you've never been before. What's the first thing you check out? Historic buildings? Sushi restaurants? Luxury hotels?

Dream on. The airport is, unfortunately, the first taste anyone gets of a new city. Most, alas, are forgettable and uncomfortable, full of overpriced fast food and rows of hard seats.

But does it have to be that way? A few cities these days are saying no.

The airport in Charlotte, N.C., sports a glistening baby grand. You can sit down and play "Stormy Weather."

Detroit's airport has a unique fountain. It's a big circle, and though it's only about a quarter-inch deep, slim jets of water constantly rise and fall over its surface, splashing and sparkling like fish.

Philadelphia's airport has dozens of white rocking chairs, and so does Charlotte's. The rockers are a simple touch ("They look as if they came from Wal-Mart," comments one visitor to Philly). But they've received tremendous publicity.

And Buffalo's airport? Well, it has come a long way since the days of the old Cold War facility, with that empty Westinghouse building next door.

Our new world-class airport is bathed in natural light. It's user-friendly. That lively light-up screen of Niagara Falls is a good touch. So are the murals of the falls in the Niagara Grille.

Kudos, too, for the handsome Frank Lloyd Wright-style chairs in the Landmark Bar. It's wonderful to spotlight our artistic heritage.

But what if the airport really took off? We could start with a few little improvements such as replacing Billy Joel with Beethoven on the sound system. (All the better airports play classical music; we could play the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's recordings). And while our little glassed-in Buffalo timeline is a great idea, it should accentuate the positive, not the negative. (Who needs to know what year Republic Steel shut down? And if we have to include bad news, it's Hengerer's, not Herenger's).

At the same time we're adjusting the smaller things, we should look for one great big gimmick. Gimmicks work: Old-fashioned amusement parks were reinvented as theme parks thanks to a rodent. Liberace was a heck of a pianist, but it took a sequined jacket to turn him into a household name.

Western New York is a hotbed of creativity. Buffalonians were able to take the part of a chicken that gets thrown away and turn it into a delicacy. Our politicians exhibit da Vinci-like vision with their endless array of taxes, fees and surcharges.

The airport should harness this creative force the way Nikola Tesla helped harness the Niagara and the Wright brothers harnessed the wind. Airport officials should hold a community contest to find the big gimmick so that travelers will go home and talk about us.

Here are some ideas to get us started:

We could warm up our antiseptic airport, maybe building on our snowy reputation with an enclosed fireplace. Mulled cider could speak eloquently of our location in apple country.

Or maybe the gimmick should be home cooking. How about real mothers and grandmothers serving Buffalo's array of ethnic foods in a special food pavilion?

Another option: Live music could get people talking. A high-travel time -- Thanksgiving weekend, say -- could be brightened by small jazz combos scattered throughout the airport. We could be one of the first airports to do this.

How about museums? Science exhibits could follow rotating themes.

Or we could compete with Philly's rocking chairs. How about a bevy of Buffalo-invented Barcaloungers spread through the terminals?

Our airport officials, business leaders and politicians delivered Buffalo a world-class facility. A classy gimmick can deliver us the world.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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