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5 millionth passenger makes airport's year

Buffalo Niagara International Airport passed a milestone Wednesday when its 5 millionth passenger of the year walked through the terminal.

In a community often noted for its failures -- a bridge that can't get built, a waterfront not developed, silver-bullet development schemes that shoot blanks -- that milestone marked a significant success story.

It wasn't long ago that the new Buffalo terminal, which opened on Nov. 3, 1997, wasn't projected to attract 5 million passengers a year until 2020.

"We often talk as a community about the things we do wrong. The airport and the airport service objectives everyone wanted 10-plus years ago is one of the things we've done right," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

"We have a gateway facility, we have low-cost carriers, and we have a very accessible location. The combination of the three is an enormous competitive advantage for our marketplace," he said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., whose efforts to bring JetBlue to Buffalo in 2001 helped create the conditions for Southwest and other low-fare airlines to follow, rejoiced over the airport's success.

"This is one of the great success stories of Western New York. It shows you that when industries and companies give Western New York a chance, they'll do better than they ever thought," Schumer said. "Let's hope it's a metaphor for the future."

The economic benefits of the airport are considerable. The facility generates an annual regional economic impact of $916.9 million and supports 17,500 jobs, according to a study by the state Department of Transportation. Beginning with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's initial $55 million investment, it has spent $371 million to build the new terminal, expand two concourses, make major runway improvements and expand parking capacity.

The former Greater Buffalo International Airport, which had two outdated terminal buildings for decades, officially reopened as Buffalo Niagara International Airport in 1997.

The business model laid out by planners in 1999 estimated up to 3.8 million passengers using the airport annually. But that was before a succession of low-cost airlines helped turn things around.

Schumer made the problem of exorbitant airline costs hurting Western New York businesses a campaign issue when he ran for office in 1998. Two years later, he announced a deal with JetBlue, in which the airline would acquire more takeoff and landing slots at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City in return for servicing upstate, including Buffalo.

Late NFTA Chairman Luiz Kahl also played a leading role, prompting JetBlue to name a plane for him.

The changes have made the airport go from the nation's second-most-expensive to use in 1996 to the 71st in 2005, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation study.

The airport has repeatedly drawn praise from local companies and financial institutions that rely on it for extensive traveling.

Jordan Levy, a partner with Softbank Capital, said the number of airlines flying in and out of Buffalo has had a "huge impact" on his business.

"Buffalo has now become an inexpensive place with which to commute and conduct business around the country," Levy said. "I travel every week, and so do most of the people in the firm. The bottom line is that it has allowed us to stay in Buffalo."

Ronald J. Watson of Amherst-based R.J. Watson, which manufactures components for bridges, praised the airport's appearance -- it was designed by William Pedersen of Kohn Pedersen Fox -- when it opened. But he also complained at the time that the dearth of low-cost fares still made it too costly for him to fly out of Buffalo.

Watson said he would drive as far as Cleveland to get lower air fares. Now those days are long over. "It has saved my business a lot of time and a lot of money," Watson said Wednesday.

The welcome Bryan and Heidi Donovan of Pensacola, Fla., and their two children received from airport officials on Wednesday was a surprise. After being told they were the passengers who put the terminal past the 5 million-passenger milestone, the family was given gifts that included tickets to events and two round-trip tickets to any city.

Bryan Donovan, who is an instructor and pilot for the Marine Corps, grew up in Elma and graduated from the University at Buffalo.

"You usually complain about getting stuck in the back of the plane, but I guess it paid off today," he said.

Lawrence Meckler, the NFTA's executive director, said the NFTA would not be resting on its laurels despite the airport's success.

"Ten years ago, we had less than 3 million passengers [a year] that went through the airport. You had split terminals and it was very difficult to function. Now we're close to doubling the number of passengers with essentially a stagnant population and stagnant economy," Meckler said. "We are going to continue to talk to airlines to get more direct flights, more low-cost service."

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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