Concentrate on Cargo

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority will request bids today for construction of a new Niagara airport terminal. The numbers will determine the cost, but not whether this project makes sense or just drains dollars from the region's transportation system.

The future of the Niagara Falls airport lies in a key regional role as an air cargo hub. It has runways long enough to accommodate large cargo planes, and surrounding areas with existing industrial-sized air facilities and room to build more. A secondary role, also linked to runways longer than those at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, involves jumbo-jet charter service bringing tourists to the Falls.

But regularly scheduled air passenger service belongs at the larger Buffalo Niagara International Airport, a short highway trip from Niagara Falls. Even offering discounted landing fees at the Falls airport has failed to attract airlines, which must use the Buffalo Niagara Airport to handle connecting flights. Passenger service at the Niagara Falls airport also requires diverting Customs and Transportation Security Agency personnel, at extra cost to taxpayers.

The Niagara Falls terminal now is being used by charters and by Myrtle Beach Direct Air, a limited carrier providing two vacation-oriented flights per week since March as the first regularly scheduled service since 1988. While airline officials say they have been "pleasantly surprised" by bookings, although sales are beginning to slow as the weather warms, that future is far from assured.

As noted before by this page, the "build it and they will come" approach for a $27.5 million terminal is inconsistent with both past experience and demand. There's an example NFTA commissioners should heed; 23 miles from downtown St. Louis, governments built a multimillion-dollar terminal to boost MidAmerica St. Louis Airport, which also shares a runway with the military, as an alternative to the established and crowded St. Louis-area airport. Opened in 1997, it still serves only small private aircraft and a couple of flights a week to Orlando and Las Vegas. Its shortcomings are seen within the industry as illustrating the dangers of fractionalizing an air-travel market.

There still may be some rationale for a new air terminal at Niagara Falls. The current terminal is obsolete by passenger service and post-9/11 security standards, and upgrades would be needed even for the charter aircraft using the airport. But costs will be crucial. The new-terminal construction estimate of $27.5 million is close enough to the NFTA's $20 million estimate for existing-terminal renovation to make new construction reasonable, but if the actual construction bids are higher than expected the NFTA should rethink this project.

Right now, $14 million already is available for the terminal, including $9.5 million in local-share funds from the Seneca casino deal that would be forfeited if not used for this or another locally identified project by August 2008. The rest of the cost would be bonded by the NFTA. Federal money related to the project deals mostly with taxiway and apron improvements needed either for cargo or charter service anyway.

NFTA and local public officials have concentrated, correctly, on making the Niagara site a major air cargo facility, and trolling for Falls tourism and casino-related charters. Strong efforts must continue in those areas, because that's where the potential is greatest. But the push for regular air service is motivated by political pressure rather than operational reality. The record is thoroughly convincing -- every single airline that has started scheduled service from Niagara Falls has failed. Small-scale and vacation-targeted scheduled flights could be an added value -- but they alone cannot justify the cost of a new terminal.

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