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Buffalo airport making big push for transatlantic flights

Imagine planning your next European vacation without the hassle of connecting at a crowded major airport in New York, Boston or Toronto.

Instead, think about boarding a plane at Buffalo Niagara International Airport and flying nonstop across  to Western Europe. Ireland, anyone? Scandinavia perhaps?

Naysayers call it a pipe dream. Metro Buffalo hardly ranks with that of New York or Toronto, they say. Plus, no regularly scheduled transatlantic flight has ever departed Buffalo International.

But big eastern airports are encountering more congestion, and European carriers are considering midsize U.S. airports like Buffalo.

That is a formula that the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and its airport officials think could  attract nonstop flights between  Western Europe and Western New York.

“I’m optimistic. We’re getting more attention,” said William R. Vanecek, the NFTA’s director of aviation. “I’d like to say it’s only a matter of time.”

The NFTA is buoyed by other midsize airports such as Stewart (with Norwegian Airlines flights to Edinburgh and other European points) and Bradley International serving Hartford, Conn.  (which recently snared Aer Lingus.)

“There’s a big demand in Western New York for travel to Ireland,” Vanecek  said.

And Bradley, the nation’s 54th busiest airport, is often considered a peer airport to Buffalo International, which ranks 58th nationally with about 4.6 million passengers each year.

The Buffalo airport staff maintains contact with 12 to 15 potential airlines — many based in Europe — through direct meetings and several annual conferences. Over the past two years, they've met with 43 different airlines, touting Buffalo’s geographical advantage as an uncongested eastern airport drawing from Western New York as well as the Southern Ontario megalopolis.

Airport marketers acknowledge they may not reach their goal of landing a nonstop transatlantic carrier for a while, but they also think their efforts eventually will pay off.

Vanecek and Pascal Cohen, the airport’s senior marketing manager, have made selling the airport a major part of their  jobs. They often display a nighttime photo of Western New York and Southern Ontario taken from space depicting a thick concentration of lights stretching from Toronto to Buffalo.

That image represents millions of potential airline customers.

“We have to think internationally,” Vanecek said. “And we can because the Canadians are a big part of this.”

Southern Ontario travelers — especially from Hamilton and southward — increasingly are using Buffalo International to avoid the crowding and congestion of Pearson International in Toronto. When exchange rates are favorable, close to 50 percent of the cars parked at the Cheektowaga airfield bear Ontario license plates.

Nobody should consider Buffalo’s efforts as folly, according William A. Fife, a nationally recognized airport consultant and former deputy general manager of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

“It’s not silly at all,” he said. “Buffalo is well-situated because it’s used by so many Canadians.”

Airports such as Buffalo seek transatlantic flights because of the economic and promotional benefits that follow, he said.

“It’s healthy for the economy, it reminds folks that they don’t have a backwater airport and Buffalo never has been, and it’s another way to get to Europe,” he said. “It makes ultimate sense.”

It all depends on whether international carriers feel they will gain enough return on their investment, he added.

“It works with the right market and right leadership,” he said, pointing to the NFTA’s reputation as a “thought leader” in the airport business.

Vanecek emphasized the efforts take time. When the NFTA first approached Southwest Airlines back in 2000, its executives doubted Canadians would cross the border to fly out of Buffalo. But Southwest has become a success story in the area, with 116 monthly flights to seven destinations around the country.

Stewart International Airport in Newburgh recently snared Norwegian Airlines, he said, by attracting New York City customers 50 miles up the Hudson River to an easy-to-use facility. That’s the same approach Buffalo uses to entice Southern Ontario travelers.

In addition, Buffalo offers logistical advantages such as an easy-to-use facility and uncluttered airspace compared to what lies just east.

“The most congested airspace in the United States is on the East Coast,” Vanecek said, “yet we can still be an East Coast destination.”

International carriers can also avoid the slot restrictions on landing and departing they encounter at JFK and other East Coast airfields. And the need for more flights grows as the big manufacturers switch from giant 747s to smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft suited for medium-sized airports.

Vanecek explained that Buffalo’s 8,827-foot runway can handle international flights, as well as big aircraft such as a Boeing 747. But the local market  probably would remain limited to smaller craft with 150 to 180 seats that range only as far as Ireland and other far western European destinations.

The NFTA regularly talks to industry officials in places such as Amsterdam or with Irish carrier Aer Lingus. And though Ryanair in Ireland does not fly to the United States, Vanecek said his staff maintains a relationship because airline routes frequently change and Buffalo International wants to be ready.

Aer Lingus representatives in Dublin declined to address their talks with the NFTA, but they indicated the airline continues to expand its transatlantic flights, with 13 total once service begins to Miami on Sept. 1.

Hartford was one of three new routes, including L.A. and Newark, which Aer Lingus launched in 2016, marking the airline's "largest-ever transatlantic expansion," spokeswoman Liz McNulty said.

But Hartford’s Bradley landed Aer Lingus with an incentive package — up to $9 million in revenue guarantees over two years offered by the State of Connecticut — along with a $3.6 million marketing program over the next three years.

Vanecek says New York offers no similar incentives. Neither does any local government like Erie County. As a result, competing against such incentives proves difficult for the NFTA when international carriers explore new U.S. airports.

“If I’m looking at Bradley and they throw $9 million at me, it’s a no-brainer,” he acknowledged. “It’s difficult to operate under those conditions.”

Still, the NFTA dangles other offers to international carriers, such as waiving landing fees for two years, breaks on other fees and a significant marketing package.

Vanecek emphasizes that such projects take time. Buffalo International earlier this summer made a big splash by snaring Frontier Airlines and nonstop routes to Denver and to four Florida cities. That effort began 18 years ago.

“That’s what you have to do in this industry,” he said, “and we’re going to keep at it.

“Will it ever pay benefits? We don’t know,” he added. “But if we don’t try, we’ll never get these airlines.”

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