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Buffalo Niagara International Airport's $80 million upgrade ready to take off

Just as Buffalo Niagara International Airport celebrates its new award for the best passenger experience among North America’s medium sized hubs, its administrators now aim to make it even better.

After years of planning, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority this month will launch a project now pegged at $80 million to accommodate the continued passenger growth anticipated at Buffalo Niagara. When finished in 2021, it will feature new foot traffic patterns within the terminal, expanded and modernized baggage carousels, better accommodations for international travelers, and relocated as well as upgraded concessions for the approximately 5 million passengers now using the Cheektowaga facility each year.

Airport officials say they are bringing Buffalo’s airport into the 21st century.

“This is all about addressing a volume-based need and creating a better customer service for our passengers,” said William R. Vanecek, NFTA director of aviation.

Preliminary work starts Dec. 18, with major construction to follow in the spring.

It all unfolds after the NFTA last week celebrated Buffalo Niagara’s ranking as the continent’s top medium-sized airport for customer satisfaction by the J.D. Power marketing information firm. Already, the Buffalo facility is recognized for its easy access, smooth flowing security lines, good concessions and even its clean restrooms.

Michael Taylor, J.D. Power’s airport study director, noted Buffalo Niagara ranks among the top three in all categories, and missed scoring as best overall airport by just one point (that goes to John Wayne International in Orange County, Calif.). His company also measures categories like proximity to gates and overall atmosphere.

“This is an oasis compared to the madhouses that many airports are today,” he said.

The blue areas on the right and left show planned additions to the upper and lower levels of Buffalo Niagara International Airport to move arriving passengers away from departing passengers and eliminate congestion. The blue areas in the middle represent new baggage carousels. (NFTA rendering)

But now the NFTA looks to its airport’s future with improvements such as:

• New walkways curving around the main terminal’s east and west ends that provide direct access to escalators and ground-floor baggage claims. The goal is to eliminate congestion near the current upper level elevators caused by the mix of arriving and departing passengers.

• Four baggage carousels to replace three existing baggage belts, doubling capacity. Sloped plates on the carousels will take over for the current flat plate system. Vanecek said the portals from which unloaded baggage arrives have always posed a security problem.

“We had a rock band once that thought it would be fun to ride the belt through those things,” Vanecek said. “They won’t be able to do that anymore.”

• Expanded storage area for lost or delayed baggage awaiting claim by owners, eliminating the “sea of baggage” often clogging the lower level.

• New curb space at both ends of the terminal, considered a premium at Buffalo Niagara.

• Relocating familiar concessions like the upper floor’s Lake Erie Grill and airport barbershop.

• A centralized play area for children, along with a tech center providing work space and cellphone charging.

• A new and protected bus waiting area on the lower level.

• “Green” walls with plantings to filter the interior atmosphere.

Most of the project will be funded by passenger facility charges tacked onto each ticket bought at the airport along with NFTA borrowing and about $1.8 million so far committed by New York State.

While today’s travelers assign high marks to Buffalo Niagara, Vanecek said planners recognize the need for improvements. When the new airport was completed in 1997, he said, it accommodated the approximately 3 million people passing through its gates each year.

Buffalo airport soars in customer satisfaction study

But significant changes began shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001 transformed aviation forever. Now security lines snake through the airport’s main lobby (for which it was not designed), presenting a host of logistical challenges never contemplated at its 1997 dedication.

And in the years following, new carriers like JetBlue and Southwest landed at Buffalo Niagara in 2000, sparking demand for air travel and an upward trend that continues through today. While the airport expanded incrementally from 15 to 24 gates to handle the increased traffic, other services have lagged — especially internal passenger flows and baggage handling.

“All our other support functions stayed stagnant,” Vanecek said, noting the airport still maintained high customer satisfaction ratings.

Recently, the airport has returned to the 5 million mark it noted before a wave of airline consolidations and other economic factors suppressed air travel for several years. Now and in the near future, however, officials project even higher passenger totals (including about 40 percent of airport travelers from Southern Ontario).

And if Buffalo Niagara is to continue attracting new and improved air service, Vanecek said, its facilities must keep pace.

As a result, NFTA officials recently awarded a $52.7 million contract to the Pike Co. of Rochester for supervising the project as general contractor. The first phase calls for crews to fence off the west side “limo lot” to identify hidden utility lines for relocation. That area will eventually house a new enclosed corridor for international and charter flight passengers who have cleared customs and currently must walk outdoors to access shuttles, taxis and parked vehicles.

Early plans also call for staging construction equipment in the long term lot’s overflow area. Customers will soon begin to feel some effects, Vanecek said.

“It’s not like there will be a steady stream of trucks, but there will be some disruption in traffic,” he said of the project’s early stages. “You could run into a delay or two.”

Travelers will begin to experience more tangible construction effects in 2020 when crews begin “banging through walls,” Vanecek added.

The airport’s eastern end, including new passageways for passengers arriving on flights and exiting the facility, are slated for the final phases in 2021.

Vanecek said the construction and resulting disruptions may detract from future J.D. Power surveys, but he is not concerned.

“When they’re done, we’ll go right back up,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind.”

Airport upgrade driven by more flights, passengers

Most carriers at Buffalo Niagara International Airport continue to expand service, including these new, nonstop options:

• American Airlines daily to Dallas-Fort Worth on full-sized A-319 jets departing Buffalo at 6:30 a.m. beginning Dec. 20.
• American “mostly daily,” with exact details still to be finalized, on A-319s to Miami in seasonal service beginning Dec. 20 until April 2, departing Buffalo at 6:04 a.m.
• Frontier Airlines to Denver increasing from twice weekly to daily beginning April 30, with varying times.
• Southwest Airlines begins daily to Denver on June 9 with 7:40 a.m. departures from Buffalo and returns departing from Denver at 11:55 a.m. (Mountain time).
• JetBlue to Los Angeles will eliminate current red-eye returns, with Buffalo departures to Los Angeles at 1:25 p.m. beginning Feb. 14, and returns departing at 5:10 p.m. (Pacific time) and arriving in Buffalo at 12:53 a.m.

New services are also planned for Montego Bay in Jamaica, Cancun, Mexico, and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, with details to be worked out. One disappointment included the August end of round-trip service to Albany introduced last February by OneJet Airlines.

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