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World is the new market for rapidly expanding facility in Niagara Falls

With the return of commercial passenger airline service to Niagara Falls International Airport last year, officials are looking toward Europe and China to add overseas flights in 2011.

Executives of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which owns the Niagara Falls airport as well as the much busier Buffalo-Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga, are using their personal networking techniques to promote international travel to and from Niagara Falls.

"We are looking for foreign flights to begin coming into Niagara Falls in 2011," said NFTA Chairman Henry M. Sloma. "Inbound flights are an income growth factor for us. People could be flying here from Europe and China, and we want to get flights to and from India."

Sloma said the NFTA's focus has been on Buffalo's main airport in Cheektowaga for a long time, but now the Niagara Falls airport can complement Buffalo, not compete with it.

"Our staff has been attending conferences and conventions, making contacts, and networking with airline operators and tourism officials to promote Niagara Falls," the chairman said.

The Buffalo airport dwarfs Niagara Falls in the number of fights and passengers, size of the terminal building and passenger amenities. But Niagara Falls has some advantages of its own: it's less crowded, has expanded its passenger-handling facilities and has a brand new terminal building with increased services. It also has a longer runway that can easily handle the largest of commercial jets, some of which are too big to land on the shorter runways at the Buffalo airport.

Niagara Falls also has the advantage of being closer to the Canadian border, making it an attractive alternative for Canadian travelers who want to avoid the ground traffic and crowds at airports serving Toronto and Buffalo.

"The airline industry has discovered the Niagara Falls terminal," Sloma said. "It is a new market. And it's a Canadian market. About 55 percent of our travelers at Niagara Falls are Canadians.

"It's still a very competitive industry," the chairman added. "Our team is out continuing to beat the bushes to build up more passenger traffic. We need more transportation packages and tourist packages that bundle tourism destinations with our airline services."

William Vaneck, the NFTA's director of aviation, said a new website called CANFLYUS has been set up specifically to lure Canadian travelers.

"We are putting a lot of marketing effort into it," Vaneck said.

The NFTA dedicated its state-of-the-art $31.5 million passenger terminal in September 2009 as a major component of an overall $42.5 million Niagara Falls airport improvement project that includes $11 million in apron and landside improvements. The take-off length of its main runway is 10,825 feet -- more than two miles -- and it can accommodate the largest aircraft in the world.

The Niagara Falls airport, at Porter Road and Niagara Falls Boulevard, is at the eastern city line, partly in the City of Niagara Falls and partly in the adjoining towns of Wheatfield and Niagara. Some small regional airlines have served Niagara Falls in decades past, but they were short-lived. There has been no regularly scheduled commercial service here in recent years until the resurgence of low-cost commercial traffic over the last couple of years.

Before that, the airport mainly served charter flights, private planes and military aircraft for the adjoining Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

Today, Direct Air provides service to and from Melbourne and Punta Gorda, Fla.; Vision Airlines has inaugurated service to and from Miami, with an intermediate stop at Northwest Florida Regional Airport serving the Destin and Fort Walton Beach area; and Spirit Airlines planned to begin service in late January to and from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with additional service beginning May 5 to and from Myrtle Beach, S.C.

With the opening of the new terminal building, more aggressive commercial promotion and the inauguration of new flights, Vaneck said the past year exceeded expectations in passengers.

"We are forecasting 96,000 emplanements in 2011 in Niagara Falls," he said, "and a total of nearly 200,000 passengers if you count both arrivals and departures.

"Traffic at Niagara Falls is growing suddenly," Vaneck said. "In February, we will have 15 flights a week out of Niagara Falls, and we are continuing to talk with other air carriers about additional service. We've received rave reviews from passengers."

The Niagara Falls airport was established in 1928 as a city-owned airfield with four runways paved with crushed stone. The first terminal building was opened in 1935.

The U.S. Army Air Forces, as it then was called, established a base at the airport and operated it throughout World War II. The military added and extended runways, built a control tower and added high intensity lights and an instrument landing system.

The base eventually was converted to an Air Reserve base and it became the home of the New York Air National Guard. With the establishment of the U.S. Air Force in 1947, an Air Force Reserve unit took up residence. The U.S. Customs Service, as it then was known, approved the Niagara Falls airport for international flights in 1965.

In 1970, the city sold the airport to its current owner, the NFTA. Through the years, the runways have been lengthened and improved with three active runways now serving general aviation, military and commercial flights.

e-mail: rbaldwin@buffnews.com