August 27, 2008

Buffalo’s Air Travelers on the Rise ; Surge in Travelers From Ontario Has Benefited Airport

By Stephen T. Watson

The rising ticket prices, flight delays and security-checkpoint indignities that frustrate air travelers today aren't keeping people away from the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The airport handled 279,414 outbound passengers last month, breaking the monthly record last set in August 2007, according to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

"We're very pleased about that," William R. Vanecek, the NFTA aviation director, said Monday at the authority's August board meeting.

The passenger record at the local airport defies the national trend, which is seeing fewer people fly because of the lagging economy and the rising cost of fuel and travel.

The airport has benefited from a surge in travelers from Ontario, drawn by the convenience of using this airport and the strength of the Canadian dollar.

"For Buffalo to be on the rise when everybody is seeing cuts in flights and services, that shows that we have a product that will survive even recessionary trends and fuel costs," NFTA Chairman Gregory Stamm said after the meeting.

Also Monday, the board approved a plan to spend $1.2 million on the next stage of its multimillion-dollar project to limit noise at homes near the airport in Cheektowaga and Amherst.

The July outbound travel record of 279,414 handily beat the monthly record of 265,740 set last August, Vanecek said.

August is typically the airport's busiest month, and Vanecek said it's likely the airport will set a new record this month.

The authority, as a rule of thumb, doubles the number of outbound travelers to get a total number of passengers served.

That total was a record-setting 5.4 million travelers in 2007.

"I think we're in pretty good shape" to break the single-year record this year, Vanecek said, noting passenger levels to date are up 5.5 percent over last year.

The boost in passengers, aided in large part by travelers from Canada, hasn't come without some growing pains.

Parking has been tight at the airport during peak travel periods, and at least one NFTA board member said the authority needs to build more bathroom facilities there.

"This is another byproduct of our success," said Henry M. Sloma, board vice chairman.

A planned expansion at the airport featuring a branch of the Anchor Bar, the chicken-wing Mecca, will include extra bathrooms, Vanecek said.

Further, airlines JetBlue and AirTran this fall will resume non- stop service from Buffalo to Fort Myers, Fla.

The rise in passengers flying out of Buffalo comes as air travel nationally is slumping.

The Air Transport Association of America, the industry trade group for the largest airlines in this country, predicts air travel for this Labor Day weekend will be down 5.7 percent over the same period in 2007.

"Economic uncertainty and the heavy hit from sky-high energy prices mean that many vacation and business travelers are choosing to stay closer to home -- if they go at all," James C. May, the ATA's president and chief executive officer, said in a statement on its Web site.

Monday's meeting also saw the NFTA board approve a $1.2 million contract for the next round of a project to reduce noise problems for homeowners who live near the airport.

The full 10-year, $60 million project, funded mainly by money from the Federal Aviation Administration, started last winter with 37 homes.

Under the project, the authority is hiring contractors to install noise-reducing doors, triple-pane windows and other soundproofing measures at 1,700 homes near the airport.

This summer, the program started work on a second batch of 80 homes at a cost of $2.5 million, said C. Douglas Hartmayer, an NFTA spokesman.

The $1.2 million approved at Monday's board meeting will pay for 43 homes in the next stage of the program, Hartmayer said. Work could start this fall, pending FAA approval.

Also Monday, the NFTA board voted to reduce the premium pricing on its Game Day Express bus service to Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park.

The drop in price -- from a flat $7 round-trip cost to somewhere between $3.50 and $5.20 per rider, depending on where the rider gets on -- was mandated by a change in federal public transportation rules.

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Originally published by NEWS STAFF REPORTER.

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