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Airport in Falls set to enhance its runway; Reconstruction grant spurs vision of growth

A rebuilt runway at Niagara Falls International Airport will enhance the adjacent Air Reserve Station while increasing the chances that the Buffalo Niagara region could get international flights, officials said Thursday in announcing a $11.7 million federal grant to help fund the project.

Laying out a vision of the Niagara Falls airport that combines its military use with a growing number of commercial flights -- including new ones announced Thursday by Allegiant Air -- Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority officials said the facility serves a different purpose from that of the region's main airport in Cheektowaga.

"It's a longer runway than at Buffalo, and the joint use by the military and those big C-130s makes it vital to our region," NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer said, citing the transport planes flown by Air Force reservists at the base.

Hartmayer also said the long runway at Niagara Falls makes the facility the top candidate for international and other long-distance commercial flights should that potential market develop.

"That's the one that will help us attract that kind of activity," Hartmayer said.

Then again, the runway project is driven as much by necessity as by vision.

The 11,000-foot main runway at Niagara Falls had not received much attention in many years, Hartmayer said.

As a result, the runway is "showing some cracks," said Col. Allan L. Swartzmiller, commander at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

Without repair, Swartzmiller said, "it could be hazardous to aviation."

Fixing the runway will cost $23 million, and about 90 percent of the money will come from Washington, said NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel.

Officials announced Thursday that the Federal Aviation Administration will kick in $11.7 million and that the rest of the federal share will come from the military construction budget.

>Work starting early

Work will start next week and be completed within a year, Minkel said. The early release of the FAA money will enable an early start to the project.

"Typically, in past years, funding wasn't released until summer," Minkel said, adding that the contract for the runway work has been awarded to Sealand Construction of Rochester.

Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, said she spoke with acting FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta and urged him to move up the release because of Western New York's short construction season.

"This money could have gone anywhere in the country. This is discretionary money from the Federal Aviation Administration," Hochul said.

The money comes while Hochul is leading the effort to try to find a new mission for the Air National Guard's 107th Airlift Wing, which would lose its current cargo mission as part of proposed Pentagon budget cuts.

"As I'm making the argument in Washington every single day as to why we should have a new mission for the Niagara Falls air base, this runway is an important component of the argument we're making," Hochul said.

The runway reconstruction "makes us viable for another 20 years," said Col. John J. Higgins, vice wing commander of the 107th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard, which shares the base with the Air Force Reserve's 914th Airlift Wing.

Last year, the secondary runway at the airport, measuring 5,500 feet, was rehabilitated, Swartzmiller said.

The runway reconstruction project comes amid a period of unprecedented growth at the Niagara Falls airport, which has seen its passenger count increase from about 1,000 in 2009 to more than 200,000 today.

>Florida flights added

That number could grow even more, thanks to new Florida flights that Allegiant Air announced Thursday.

Allegiant, which started at Niagara Falls in December with flights to St. Petersburg-Clearwater and later added service to Orlando-Sanford, will begin flying July 1 to Fort Lauderdale.

The three-hour flights will depart Sundays and Thursdays at 7:55 p.m. Incoming flights from Fort Lauderdale will land at 7:15 p.m.

Last month's abrupt shutdown of Direct Air, which had been the top passenger carrier at Niagara Falls, had nothing to do with the move to add Fort Lauderdale service, according to Keith Hansen, director of airports for Allegiant.

"That was an opportunity we saw. That didn't have anything to do with Direct Air," he said.

The Fort Lauderdale flights will use MD-80 aircraft with at least 150 seats. The airline is currently redesigning its MD-80 cabins to increase seating to 166, Hansen said.

>'International gateway'

Base fares will start at $94.99. Allegiant charges $35 per bag to check luggage or to carry a bag aboard. Fliers can save money on the fees by paying them when they buy their tickets online, Hansen said.

Hochul said Allegiant's announcement was another key component in the airport's growth.

"Between Allegiant's expansion and the federal investment announced today," she said, "I am confident that Niagara Falls International Airport will be a key component in Western New York's economic development, and will serve as an international gateway to travelers and increase regional tourism revenues."

News Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski contributed to this report.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com and rmccarthy@buffnews.com