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The sky's the limit;
Expanded service, cheaper flights spur rise in airport's importance to the local economy

The Buffalo Niagara International Airport is on track to serve more than 5 million total passengers this year -- for the sixth consecutive year.

Those big numbers have become practically routine for the airport, making it easy to forget how different the picture was for fliers in the 1990s, when the Buffalo airport had dingy, outdated facilities and was known for high fares.

All of that began to change when the airport's flashy new terminal debuted in late 1997, and began turning the airport into a regional asset. It has become a draw for businesses that send employees out and welcome clients here; a tool for residents who can live here and work elsewhere, and an economic engine for the surrounding community, fueling hotel construction and employment.

Consider:

*Total passengers at the airport last year were up 63 percent from 1998, the first full year the new terminal was open.

*Fifteen years ago, the airport was the second most expensive to fly out of among the nation's top 100, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Today it has dropped to 78th on that list. Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways and AirTran Airways are credited with helping to bring fares down.

*Buffalo's is the No. 1 U.S. airport for drawing fliers from Canada, a cross-border trend that has influenced hotel construction.

All of the changes are striking to William R. Vanecek, director of aviation for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which runs the airport.

"We certainly have seen significant growth from outside our traditional metropolitan area" of Erie and Niagara counties, he said. "Canada has become a huge, huge boon for us."

While the airport's growth has made it easier and cheaper for a family to hop a plane to Florida for vacation, the business community has also benefited. With an average of 100 takeoffs per day, business travelers have lots of options to get to places, with lower fares and on nonstop flights.

"We're well served to New York [City], we're well served to Chicago now, we're well served to Atlanta," Vanecek said. "Those are some of the major business hubs."

Business travelers cannot afford to spend hours reaching their destination, so nonstop service is crucial, he said. "It's not only fare price, but the time your people spend in an airport or getting to an airport, and then it's making sure your flight times to your final destinations are not eight, nine hours' worth of connection."

John Cimperman, managing partner of Cenergy Communications in East Aurora, said the airport is a plus for his company.

"We do extensive travel to New York and Atlanta for our business," he said. Cimperman said he likes the airport's accessibility: He can drive there from East Aurora in the morning, catch a flight, and still make it to a 9 a.m. meeting in Manhattan.

And lower fares make business travel more feasible, he said, allowing his employees to have more of those important face-to-face meetings with clients.

Vanecek agrees with that point. "At the end of the day, a smile and a handshake and a 'How are you doing?' goes a long way in person, versus over a video monitor," he said. "So it is a key component of any successful community. I think you see communities that have had airlines pull out of their areas, they get hurt by that."

Businesses count on the ability to access other cities conveniently, he said. "If you cannot be mobile out of a community you're looking to set up shop in, it's a big strike against you."

Michael Boyd, an aviation expert based in Colorado, said the Buffalo airport scores well in accessibility. To him, that is actually a more important measure of an airport's impact than its annual passenger count, reflecting a region's ability to connect with the world.

"It's not about the folks in Western New York," said Boyd, president of Boyd Group International. "It's about whether someone can get to Buffalo."

Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, which markets the region to businesses, uses the airport in its recruiting pitch, pointing out the service options and low average fares. Thomas Kucharski, the BNE's chief executive officer, said the airport topic tends to come up in the first one-third of a discussion with a prospect.

"It's a critical piece," he said. "If people think they're in a cost-efficient place and they can get to where they need to without a hassle and it's not going to break the bank, that means a lot."

A number of Canadian companies have expanded their operations into Buffalo Niagara. With so many Canadians already flying out of the Buffalo airport for leisure travel, the BNE sees a marketing opportunity. Part of its new campaign promoting the region for business includes a 24-foot-long banner at the airport. The idea is to get Canadians to think about Buffalo as a base for their U.S. business operations, as well.

The Buffalo airport's business benefit shows up in less-obvious ways, as well. Some local residents will commute weekly to jobs in New York City, flying out on a Monday and returning on a Thursday night or a Friday. They can hold a job in New York City without owning an expensive home there.

Similarly, Vanecek said, some pilots and flight attendants will live here and commute to where their jobs are based, in hubs like Chicago.

Canadian travelers have played a prominent role in the airport's growth. They account for perhaps one-third of outbound passengers, based on NFTA parking lot surveys. Some of them will even come from north of Toronto to catch a flight.

"I think to the extent we can continue to drive airlines to the desired destinations for Canadian travelers, we'll be very successful for a very long time," Vanecek said.

The cross-border trend has helped spur construction of several new hotels on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga. Vanecek said the region benefits when Canadians book a room the night before their flight, and go out to shop or eat. "That's money into your community that you wouldn't otherwise have," he said.

Vanecek said the airport's success also stems from the many people who make it run efficiently every day. Among those he mentions: the custodians who keep it clean, workers who keep the runways open amid heavy snow, and the TSA workers who keep security checkpoint lines flowing.

Vanecek said he is proud of how far the Buffalo airport has come, but he sees more goals to achieve.

One of them is to persuade carriers to provide nonstop service to the West Coast, to markets such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. "Those are two markets that have heavy travel out of this area, but we have no nonstop flights."

No matter what unfolds, the days of the airport's old terminals, and the poor first impression of Buffalo they projected, are long gone.

"You just watch people get off planes," Vanecek said. "It's so bright, it's so open, it's so clean, it's so shiny, you see a lot more smiles than you did back then."

mglynn@buffnews.com