Delta Air Lines Sees Potential in Buffalo

Delta Air Lines has served Buffalo's airport since 1989, but it has faced a host of upstart competitors in recent years.

The airline is adapting to cope with that changing market, said Hank Halter, its senior vice president and controller, during a Wednesday visit to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Halter said low-fare carrier AirTran probably sets the pace for fares on the Buffalo to Atlanta route, and Delta tries to be competitive on price. But Delta also plays up that it serves more cities than a carrier such as AirTran, both domestically and internationally, he said.

Delta has also introduced service from Buffalo Niagara International Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, a route also served by JetBlue.

"Really it's the low-cost carriers we're competing with," Halter said.

The competitive climate illustrates how the Buffalo airport has shed its reputation as an expensive place for air fares.

Delta offers a total of 16 daily flights at the Buffalo airport, to JFK, Atlanta and Cincinnati. The airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September 2005, but that hasn't stopped Delta from growing, Halter said.

Earlier this year, Delta began its Buffalo to JFK service with four daily flights. Those flights were more than 80 percent full on average, so the the airline recently increased its number of flights on that route to six, Halter said.

Halter outlined how Delta has undergone a sweeping restructuring in the past several years through staff cuts, more efficient use of its planes, and increasing its international service.

In August, Delta ranked fourth in passenger enplanements at the Buffalo airport, with 10 percent of the total. A year ago, it was in a three-way tie for fourth, with 9 percent of enplanements.

In flights, Delta was tied for third in August, with 12 percent. A year ago it was fifth, with 9 percent.

The arrival of carriers such as JetBlue, Southwest and AirTran in the past few years have helped drive down ticket prices at the Buffalo airport.

The airport is en route to surpassing 5 million total passengers this year, a goal it had not expected to achieve until 2020, said C. Douglas Hartmayer, a spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which runs the airport. The airport gets 20 percent to 25 percent of its monthly volume from Canadian fliers.

The growth of discount flights at the airport is being noticed by local businesses.

As fares have fallen, HSBC has started having more meetings in Buffalo, since it is halfway between its offices in Chicago and Buffalo, said Kathleen Rizzo Young, a HSBC spokeswoman.

Employees of Cenergy Communications in East Aurora are regular users of the Buffalo airport. "I think it's very good and it's improved dramatically over the past five years," said John Cimperman, a Cenergy principal.

Cimperman credits the newer carriers with helping lower fares. But equally important to Cenergy is the increased frequency of flights, giving employees options to fly at different times of the day, he said.

Brian Lacey, vice president of business development for Delaware North Companies' Travel Hospitality Services division, is also a frequent flier and said he likes the scheduling and variety of airlines he can choose from at the Buffalo airport.

Andrew Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said the airport boasts a combination other cities envy: lots of airline service, low average fares, and minimal congestion.

Even on the busiest days, the wait to pass through airport security in Buffalo is short compared to other big cities, he said. "I think that's an enormously important thing for businesses," he said.

Tom Kucharski, president of the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, said all international companies that scout Buffalo ask about air access and transportation infrastructure, and 85 percent of domestic prospects do so. The BNE considers the airport's lineup of service and fares as an asset for marketing, he said.

Halter said all but three of Delta's flights from Buffalo use 50-seat regional jets, many of which are operated by Comair, a Delta subsidiary.

Comair is in the midst of tough labor talks, and has warned that it could have a difficult time competing to provide regional jet service for Delta.

Halter said if Comair is unable to come up with an economical solution, Delta might shift the service it now provides through Comair to another contract carrier. "If Comair isn't cost competitive, we'll put the flying with someone who is," he said.



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