Good article on how BUF has gone from a non-descript small regional airport to a hub of Low fares for Western N.Y. and Southern Ontario.
By KEVIN COLLISON
News Staff Reporter
Buffalo's airport, where travelers paid
the second-highest air fares in the nation four years ago, today is the hub for a huge travel market stretching deep into upstate New York and Southern Ontario.
Why? Because Buffalo Niagara International Airport is now among the cheapest places to fly into and out of in the country.
Thanks to fares driven down by powerhouse budget carriers Southwest Airlines and JetBlue, local development agencies now have a top-flight recruitment tool, area companies are enjoying big savings, and leisure and business travelers from a 100-mile radius are coming here to fly.
Buffalo ranked 64th in average air-fare costs in the last quarter of 2000, putting it in the bottom quarter of the 83 cities listed, according to the latest U.S. Department of Transportation report.
Those statistics confirm what the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and business leaders already believe: The decisions to build a new airport terminal and aggressively pursue low-fare airlines have paid off as no other community initiative in decades.
"There are few policy issues for which the results have completely met their goals as the air-fare issue," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. "This is an example of something we've done right."
The airport set a record last year with 4.25 million passengers, and the NFTA is projecting the count will surpass 5 million this year. Budget airlines now carry more than one-third of the passengers flying out of Buffalo.
"We are seeing an influx of traffic from the Rochester area and a major influx from the Niagara (Ont.) region, both corporate and leisure," said Jean M. Covelli, president of Travel Team.
The NFTA estimates that local passengers saved $112 million because of lower air fares during the past three years, based on what they paid on average for tickets before the current trend began.
"What was once an embarrassment for the city is now a tool for economic development," said Luiz F. Kahl, NFTA chairman.
Buffalo's current menu of low-fare airlines, which also includes AirTran, Vanguard, Shuttle America and Midway, has realized the promise of marketing studies prepared by the NFTA and Buffalo Niagara Partnership in the mid-1990s.
The Buffalo airport has become the air travel hub for a binational market that includes more than 8 million people. They live in such places as Hamilton, Ont., Jamestown, Erie, Pa. and two upstate cities that continue to be hammered by high prices: Rochester and Syracuse.
The latest federal survey listed Rochester as the third-most-expensive city and Syracuse as 20th.
"Southwest has really helped, because they go all over from Buffalo," said Bonnie Rademacher, vice president of Carlson Wagonlit Travel. "We even have people from Toronto coming here."
Paul Mountain, executive vice president of Niagara Airbus, a shuttle that carries travelers living in Southern Ontario to the Buffalo airport, said his company has increased the number of buses running to the airport from 12 a year ago to 18 today.
"People are finding Buffalo a lot easier because of the new terminal," he said.
Terry Slaybaugh, director of the Greater Rochester International Airport, said there is a strong public perception in his community that many people are now traveling to Buffalo to fly. His airport, however, has seen slight growth, with passengers there up 4 percent.
Rochester, which lost the race with Buffalo to lure Southwest, has landed JetBlue and hopes to persuade AirTran to come aboard.
"I'm hoping that third place will change," he said.
The area's low fares are beginning to "raise eyebrows" among industrial site selectors, according to Thomas Kucharski, who heads both Buffalo Niagara Enterprise and the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.
"It's a common denominator among site selectors, not only the costs, but the number of flights," he said. "Good air service creates a circumstance that allows us to further explain how competitive we've become."
For businesses already here, low-fare carriers have made their jobs easier.
HSBC Bank, one of JetBlue's biggest customers, has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel costs since the New York City-based airline began service here in February 2000, said Tom Kaiser, the bank's senior vice president responsible for corporate travel.
"JetBlue has positioned us to be more mobile and agile as a company," he said. "Roughly half our travelers reduced their expenditures by half."
There were more than a few skeptics when the NFTA decided to scrap its awkward but functioning two-terminal setup and build a single modern terminal in 1992.
Later, it was the NFTA's turn to gripe when critics said lowering air fares was part of its job.
But under the leadership of former Chairman Robert D. Gioia and Commissioner James M. Wadsworth, who headed the aviation committee, the authority opened its new terminal in November 1997 on time and on budget.
Less than two years later, the NFTA, under Kahl, took a calculated risk and decided to spend $45 million to expand the facility in a bid to lure Southwest Airlines, the nation's premier low-fare carrier.
That gamble paid off when Southwest began flying here in October. Equally important, particularly for business travelers, was the arrival of JetBlue. The start-up airline provided a cheap, reliable connection to New York City, the area's No. 1 destination.
Kaiser said HSBC has hundreds of employees traveling back and forth to New York each week, all on JetBlue.
"It's helped us in terms of the amount of money spent on travel and it's also helpful to use JetBlue because of its superb on-time performance," he said.
The percentage drop in price for the Buffalo-New York route was the ninth-biggest in the country, according to the new federal report, falling from an average of $145 one-way in the fourth quarter of 1999 to $96 in 2000, a 33.8 percent decline.
The impact of Southwest's arrival has been even more dramatic.
The 70.5 percent drop in the average fare between Buffalo and Baltimore, Southwest's main local destination with seven flights daily, was the greatest in the nation, down from $193 one way in 1999 to $57 in 2000.
The number of local travelers going to Baltimore-Washington Airport skyrocketed from 9,660 in the last quarter of 1999 to 81,052 during the same period of 2000, a whopping 739 percent increase.
"We believe it's due to the "Southwest effect' in Buffalo," said Christine Turneabe-Connelly, an airline spokeswoman. "As we see the fares decrease, the number of passengers increase as well."
Brian Keating, regional president of HSBC Bank, said the success at the airport has shown the local community can get it right. He singled out Kahl for his work at the NFTA and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., for particular praise.
"It's put Western New York back on the radar screen," Keating said. "It's made the area more competitive."