Over Busy Holiday Weekend, Buffalo Niagara International Airport Regains Its 'Vibe'

April 18, 2022

Apr. 16—Hamdi Ismail remembers the dark days of two years ago — when the state shuttered his Buffalo Niagara International Airport barber shop amid the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even after reopening, he acknowledges, business dwindled to a trickle as his longtime customers avoided anything to do with air travel.

"It was bad," he said. "People were scared to come to the airport."

But as he applied final touches to customer Lucas Lampke on Friday, Ismail said the steady flow to his second floor shop reflects the overall uptick in passenger and business levels that officials also note. Passenger traffic may not yet approach record levels, but things are lot better than they were.

"Business is really starting to pick up, especially with the holiday," Ismail said on what had been a busy Good Friday. "People have gotten vaccinated and are moving out. It's going in the right direction."

Indeed, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority officials running Buffalo airport are beginning to sense a return to near normal operations — especially this Easter/ Passover weekend — after Covid-19 virtually shut down U.S. air travel. Before the onslaught of Covid-19, Buffalo airport reported normal daily totals of about 7,500 passengers. One day in June 2020 it noted 229.

But on Friday, long lines of cabs queued outside the main terminal, and families headed for Florida or other warm spots were maneuvering through security. One volunteer ambassador on the ground floor said many travelers were discovering for the first time the recently completed airport improvements, and that baggage carousel activity was brisk.

The revived pace follows loosened border restrictions inviting more of the Southern Ontario passengers that normally constitute approximately 30% of the airport's clientele, resulting in full hallways and gate lounges.

"Canadians are no longer worried about a Covid test to come here, and that's a big deal for us," said William R. Vanecek, the NFTA's director of aviation. "We're about double where we were last year and are very, very optimistic it will continue."

Some signs of increased activity at Buffalo airport include:

—Canadians now account for about 16% of airport passengers. They cross the border to take advantage of low fares or avoid the congestion of Pearson International Airport in Toronto. Vanecek said spring break for schools and colleges is contributing, with Canadian clientele (determined by license plate surveys in parking lots) up from 9% in March.

—"Lot Full" signs greeting passengers in most parking areas this holiday weekend. Another hopeful development includes recent reopening of the airport's economy lot, shuttered for most of the pandemic.

"We had to reopen economy," Vanecek said. "We were at 100% capacity in the other lots."

—Concessions run by Delaware North Cos. that continue to expand operations in the airport concourse, including new Bocce Club Pizza and Burger Fi shops to open soon. At one point in March 2020, only one coffee shop remained open to serve the handful of people still traveling.

—Addition of some new service, including Sun Country Airlines' twice-weekly flights to Minneapolis slated to begin in June.

"This tells me the airlines are looking at a strong rebound," Vanecek said.

Vanecek, who will retire on May 1 after 25 years managing upstate New York's busiest airport, cautioned that previous levels of more than 5 million annual passengers have not returned. Departing passenger levels remain about 23% below 2019 levels as airlines slowly return to normal. And he said parking will again be available in most airport lots following the crush of current holiday travel.

But he senses a "vibe" that says people are traveling again, and predicts that by July, passenger levels will creep up to within 5% of pre-pandemic levels.

"I'm pretty optimistic about having a strong summer," he said. "People have this pent up desire to travel."

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