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Calspan hopes to lift profile of Niagara Falls airport

Calspan Corp. wants to persuade more private planes to land at the Niagara Falls International Airport for services, instead of bypassing Western New York.

That is one task that Calspan took on after it was named the “fixed-base operator” for the Niagara Falls airport in late 2013. The company has also renovated facilities for those services at the airport and will show off the results at an invitation-only grand opening next week.

Calspan formed Calspan Air Services to oversee the duties of a fixed-base operator, such as refueling, ramp assistance, de-icing, and transportation and maintenance services. About two dozen full- and part-time workers handle the work, providing services to private planes, as well as the two airlines that serve the airport, cargo planes and military aircraft.

Calspan is well known in aviation and has its corporate offices in Cheektowaga. But the company decided to spread its wings in the aviation industry, and applied to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to be the fixed-base operator.

“We thought it was an opportunity to create a better customer experience at Niagara Falls, which is our home field,” said Louis Knotts, Calspan’s CEO. “It’s very related to our technology, anyway – it’s not research, it’s services.” Calspan opened its $13 million flight research and testing facility at the Niagara Falls airport in 2005.

The NFTA chose Calspan over four other applicants and awarded the company a three-year deal. After winning the contract in late 2013, Calspan spent last year learning the business and improving the fixed-base operator facilities, which sorely needed attention.

“It was very utilitarian,” Knotts said. “It was not the kind of experience that if you’re a pilot of a multimillion-dollar fancy business jet that you would want to bring your executives through.” Calspan has invested about $75,000 in the facilities to improve their look, he said.

Knotts has found that the Niagara Falls airport is typically a “destination” location for private planes. Their passengers fly in for business meetings in the Buffalo area and Southern Ontario, or to perform at venues like Seneca Niagara Casino and Artpark. Less common are the planes that stop in simply for services like refueling en route to somewhere else. Calspan hopes to draw more of those planes.

“Because we want to give them a better customer experience, we want to expand our clientele,” Knotts said. “We want to get airplanes to come there instead of bypassing Niagara Falls or Buffalo completely and fueling somewhere else because the fuel [price] is too high in Western New York, or because they don’t get a good experience.” Calspan has invited plane owners from Southern Ontario to its grand opening, in hopes of attracting more of those aircraft.

Calspan would like to become the long-term fixed-base operator for the airport, beyond its current contract, Knotts said. “We think we have some really good staff, we have a really good manager, and we’re turning a profit.”