A decadelong effort to attract nonstop trans-Atlantic flights to Buffalo Niagara International Airport is entering a crucial phase as government officials join the business community to seek some kind of state incentive for foreign airlines.
Those involved decline to reveal specifics because of the competition from other airports seeking the same service. But officials of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority along with State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy acknowledge the state is considering requests for a multimillion-dollar “commercial support package” in return for the significant economic benefits and international prestige expected to result.
Kennedy says the business community pitch urging Albany to provide a financial incentive program may be determined as early as January.
“If this effort proves successful in early 2020, it would open the door to nonstop, trans-Atlantic flights out of Buffalo in 2021,” he said. “This is real. This is immediate. We have never been so close.”
In recent months, the NFTA has intensified efforts to lure European carriers to Buffalo International, citing its lack of congestion compared to nearby major airports and a substantial market even without the millions of potential customers in Southern Ontario.
No airline has ever provided nonstop service to Europe from Buffalo. And those involved in the ramped-up efforts have identified no specific airline or destination, though Ireland is most often mentioned.
Now, however, proponents are approaching foreign airlines with reams of data. Kennedy said research indicates that Western New Yorkers alone account for about 388,000 annual trips to and from Europe, with the vast majority traveling to Toronto Pearson International Airport or John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York for flights.
Flying out of Toronto, he said, adds a minimum of five hours to a European flight. That also discourages European trips to the area.
Kennedy said the return from new air travelers using Buffalo International would justify the state investment, and that he believes Albany is listening. Though no decisions have been made and a difficult budget process is about to begin at the Capitol, the effort has extended beyond concept into solid figures that he will not divulge.
“I’m proposing that New York State help with a financial incentive package to ensure trans-Atlantic flights in and out of Buffalo become a reality,” he said. “This decision will be a determining factor on whether the community believes in Buffalo and Western New York as the world-class, international city we are.”
NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel said Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibit the airport from offering incentives and is not directly engaged in the effort. She would not comment on whether the authority has discussed the issue with local or state leaders.
But top airport officials like William R. Vanecek and Pascal Cohen have traveled to Europe for years to sell Buffalo International, she said, and they are now supported by several business figures.
“Our aviation group is laser-focused on the importance of getting international service to Europe to Buffalo and/or Niagara Falls and what that could mean to Western New York,” she said. “And why wouldn’t we?”
Minkel noted that passenger totals at Buffalo Niagara International have grown to more than 5 million annually, it hosts more carriers than ever, is undergoing a $70 million expansion and rehabilitation that will better accommodate international travelers, and has for the past several years scored in the top rankings of the J.D. Power consumer surveys of best North American airports.
Grant Loomis, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s vice president for government affairs, said the area’s top business group has encouraged the NFTA’s efforts to lure trans-Atlantic service to Buffalo. He said many local businesses are now weighing in with letters to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders to press the issue.
“That is most beneficial to the decision-makers,” he said. “They need to hear from these individual employers about finding value in that kind of service.”
And William A. Fife, a veteran airport consultant from Long Island who has worked on Buffalo International projects in the past, said he believes the NFTA can make a strong case. He calls NFTA aviation officials top-notch and with the experience and ability to work with international airlines.
“I’ve seen it work,” he said. “But you have to continue to drive up support. You have to work with the airlines and convince them that Buffalo is a good place to go.”
Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline, told The Buffalo News in 2017 that it launched service to Newark, Los Angeles and Hartford in 2016. But Hartford’s Bradley International Airport 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.
Minkel noted that the authority’s aviation group has successfully attracted new domestic service like JetBlue’s nonstop service to Los Angeles. While the airport cannot offer any direct financial assistance, it can sweeten any package such as waiving landing and gate fees for a specific period of time.
“We believe service to Europe makes sense,” she said. “When we see the numbers of people traveling to Toronto to go to Europe, we think that’s a market we want to keep in Western New York.”
Kennedy, meanwhile, said a successful effort would land for Buffalo a world-class service “it deserves.”
“We are working to galvanize the community behind this effort,” he said. “It’s gaining traction for all the right reasons.”