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Falls airport aims to woo airlines; Promotion will attempt to bring more tourists

Plans are afoot for a renewed effort to lure more airlines to Niagara Falls International Airport, along with a promotional package that will attempt to reverse the direction of the air traffic that now takes locals and Canadians to Florida.

State Sen. George D. Maziarz said Friday that a group of airport "stakeholders," ranging from the Seneca Nation of Indians to the management of the Fashion Outlets Mall, is working on a promotional package that will try to lure people from Florida to Niagara Falls in the busy tourist season.

Maziarz, R-Newfane, called it a "gambling, golfing and shopping combo deal."

Direct Air, one of three airlines with scheduled flights to and from Niagara Falls, is part of the planning, Maziarz said.

C. Douglas Hartmayer, spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which operates the airport, said many flights from Niagara Falls don't operate in the summer.

Even with the much slower warm-weather schedule, the airport's passenger total in the first six months of this year was 173 percent higher than in the first half of 2010, rising from 16,000 to 45,000.

"We're projecting a little over 100,000 for the calendar year," Hartmayer said.

But Maziarz says the airport parking lots are too empty during the summer to suit him. Thus, the effort at a package deal involving Fashion Outlets, Seneca Niagara Casino and the Senecas' Hickory Stick Golf Course in Lewiston.

Samuel M. Ferraro, Niagara County economic development commissioner, said negotiations are continuing with the Senecas for their contribution. "We're still discussing in-kind services, cash and other amenities," he said.

The amenities could include food and gaming vouchers for the casino, along with shopping coupons at Fashion Outlets and accommodation deals for the hotel at the casino and other Falls lodgings.

If the promotion gets off the ground, "I think the impact will be tremendous on Western New York and the local economy," Ferraro said.

The County Legislature's Economic Development Committee last week gave Ferraro the go-ahead to apply for a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The money, if received, would be shifted from the county directly to the stakeholders' group for use in trying to lure more airlines.

Ferraro said it has become standard in the airline business for communities to offer money for "risk sharing" -- in effect, grants to airlines to help defray the cost of setting up service in a new city.

The federal DOT, recognizing this, set up a Small Community Air Service Development Program offering grants to help airports lure new airlines.

Hartmayer said the NFTA is enthusiastic about the prospects if the federal grant is won.

He said the authority attended a June airline conference in Cleveland called "Jump Start," where its officials touted the region as a location that would welcome more air service.

Airlines such as Direct Air and the others flying into the Falls, Spirit Airlines and Vision Airlines, "would not be flying out of Buffalo Niagara. They would only fly where there's a low-cost environment," he said.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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