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Falls airport looking to find its niche

For all of the growth at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, its refreshed sister airport in Niagara County is still trying to spread its wings.

The Niagara Falls International Airport has benefited from $42.5 million in improvements, including $31 million spent on a new terminal. The challenge has been attracting flights.

The airport is served by two carriers, Spirit Airlines and Direct Air. A third, Vision Airlines, announced it will not resume flights at the airport this fall after its scheduled summer hiatus.

"They've told us they're not coming back this year, but they say, 'Don't shut us down yet,' " said William R. Vanecek, director of aviation for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which runs the Buffalo and Niagara Falls airports. "They're still paying some rent on some small space they rent up there."

The Niagara Falls airport's total passenger count through August was about 126,000, up 86 percent from all of 2010. Still, with the Buffalo airport only a half-hour's drive away and serving a total of 5 million passengers a year, where does the Niagara Falls airport fit into the region's flight plan?

"What we have found is it's the start-ups, the [airlines] who don't want to get a big competitive response from the larger airlines that are looking at Niagara Falls versus [airlines] that are very comfortable in their shoes about being able to compete head to head with the airlines that come to Buffalo," Vanecek said. "But we always market both to airlines."

Vanecek recalled the NFTA was reaching out to Spirit in the late 1990s, presenting Buffalo or Niagara Falls as an option. "They ultimately chose Niagara Falls. Whatever their business model tells them to do, they're going to do."

The Niagara Falls airport has been a good fit for charter or niche carriers, he said. The NFTA is also pushing "very hard" to get international service there, Vanecek said.

What about making the Niagara Falls airport a hub for air cargo?

Vanecek said one obstacle is a lack of cargo facilities and available land controlled by the NFTA for those facilities. It can be tough to persuade a carrier to fly into Niagara Falls instead of cities like Toronto or New York City if the carriers have to build those facilities.

Another issue: filling up the planes with cargo for their return trips, known as "backhaul."

"We can get everything to come in, but we don't have enough locally to fill that plane to go back," he said. "There's no major employers here that have a need for that. So that's problematic."

Combining loads from several companies is also tricky, since those shipments tend to go to different destinations, he said.

So the airport -- with its $42.5 million in improvements -- sits largely unused.

-- Matt Glynn