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Editorial: Creating a 21st century airport

Those who don’t fly often, or at all, may wonder why transportation officials plan to spend millions of dollars to upgrade Buffalo’s airport. The answer is simple: demand.

Approximately 5 million passengers per year flow in and out of Buffalo Niagara International Airport, and that number is expected to grow. In response, officials planned extensive upgrades. Now the price tag on the multi-year project is estimated at $80 million.

The final product is expected in 2021. It will be money well spent, if the project pans out as promised, with new foot traffic patterns inside the terminal, expanded and modernized baggage carousels, better accommodations for international travelers and relocated as well as upgraded concessions for the millions already using the Cheektowaga facility each year.

In the increasingly competitive world of travel, airports are themselves becoming destinations with swimming pools, playgrounds, an IMAX 3-D/2D (Hong Kong International Airport) and aquarium (Vancouver International Airport).

While no one is expecting Buffalo to become the next Singapore Changi, or expand to the reaches of Istanbul and Beijing — two of the biggest airports in the world featured in The New York Times — the local airport attracts and impresses seasoned travelers.

The Buffalo airport’s advantages were officials recognized last month when it won a coveted award for best passenger experience among North America’s medium-sized hubs, taking the top spot in customer satisfaction by the J.D. Power marketing firm.

From security line to gate, traveling through the Buffalo airport is a dream, as one person noted, compared to some other airports. Wisely, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority officials chose not to remain satisfied. Instead, they plan significant improvements that include:

• New walkways curving around the main terminal’s east and west ends. The walkways will provide direct access to escalators and ground-floor baggage claims. The work should help to eliminate congestion near the upper-level elevators created by passengers arriving and departing.

• Four baggage carousels are scheduled to replace three existing baggage belts, doubling capacity. No more temptation caused by the current flat-plate system as sloped plates take over. The change may leave a certain unidentified rock band that once rode the belt looking for other entertainments. Oh, well.

• The storage area for lost or delayed baggage will be expanded. This is another welcome new addition, at least for anyone who has had to sift through look-alike bags.

Other changes frequent travelers will appreciate include relocation of familiar concessions, a centralized play area for children and a tech center providing workspace and cellphone charging. There will also be a new and protected bus waiting area on the lower level and "green" walls with plantings to filter the interior atmosphere. Also expect new curb space at both ends of the terminal, considered a premium at the airport.

Passenger facility charges will pay for most of the bill, as well as borrowing by the NFTA, and about $1.8 million committed by New York State.

Airport travel has certainly changed over the decades. Buffalo Niagara has proven to be one of the more pleasant waystations, and with anticipated improvements will burnish its stellar reputation.

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