by Susan Mikula Campbell
Niagara Falls International Airport got a double dip of good news Thursday with an announcement of a new flight destination and the news that federal funding for runway construction is on its way.
Congresswoman Kathy Hochul announced that $11.7 million in Federal Aviation Administration funding is coming to NFIA so construction can begin on the rehabilitation of the main runway.
Also at the press conference, Allegiant Airlines announced a new, twice weekly, low-cost flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., will begin July 1.
"This runway investment will strengthen the role of the Niagara Falls International Airport as an economic catalyst for the Niagara region, and will put it in a position to serve thousands of more passengers every year," said Hochul. "This funding could have been used anywhere in the country, and I am proud to have helped direct these funds towards improvements at our airport, which will provide an important boost to our local economy."
Hochul said, "we all know what a gem this is here." She had called and wrote FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta in February, urging him to expedite the funding for this project due to the area's short construction season.
Kimberley Minkel, NFTA executive director, said the runway reconstruction project totals $23 million. She said it is hoped that construction on the 11,000-foot runway by Sealand Contractors of Rochester will start next week and be completed by December this year.
Hochul also said the new runway will be an important part of the case she makes for promoting the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and the need for retaining the 107th Airlift Wing. The base shares the runway with the airport.
Col. Allan Swartzmiller, commander of the Air Reserve Station and the 914th Airlift Wing, and Col. John Higgins, vice commander of the 107th Airlift Wing, attended the press conference and were pleased with the news of the start of the runway construction.
The main runway is starting to crack and needs to be repaired before it becomes a hazard to aviation, they said. The new runway is expected to be viable for 20 years. They pointed out that construction on the airport's shorter, 5,500-foot runway was completed last summer.
"That's a huge vote of confidence," Swartzmiller said of Hochul's announcement, noting that the base is "inextricably linked" with the airport. He said the more resources the base can show it offers, the less likely it is to face cuts.
Higgins said there has been no new information on the fate of the 107th, which currently is in danger of losing its mission of partnering with the 914th in flying C-130 aircraft due to military budget cuts.
Hochul's announcement was followed by the news of Allegiant's addition to the airport lineup of flights.
Keith Hansen, Allegiant director of airports, said the new flight to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport will go out on Sundays and Thursdays.
Allegiant began operations at the Airport in December. This will be its third destination, since it already offers flights from Niagara Falls to Orlando and Tampa-St. Petersburg.
Allegiant's policy is to "give the customer the freedom to customize," he said. It establishes a low base fare, then offers as many extra cost options as possible. Those who talk about a free drink or no baggage cost at other airlines don't realize everyone "pays for those costs at those airlines, whether they use it or not, because they are wrapped into the base fare."
He pointed out that Allegiant not only offers low-cost airfare, but can also provide travel packages for hotels, car rental, activities and attractions. Allegiant partners with more than 20 hotels and Alamo Rent A Car, and can provide deals on various attractions, such as Everglades airboat tours.
NFTA Board Acting Chairman Henry Sloma commented that he flew on Allegiant Airlines himself just a couple of weeks ago on a trip to Orlando. "I can personally attest to the quality of Allegiant's service," he said.
Allegiant currently isn't planning to add any routes that previously were handled by Direct Air, which recently halted service at the NFIA due to financial problems, Hansen said. However, he said his company is aware of the high volume of customers Direct Air had at Niagara Falls and is examining the routes.
"Between Allegiant's expansion and the federal investment announced today, I am confident that the Niagara Falls International Airport will be a key component in Western New York's economic development, and will serve as an international gateway to travelers and increase regional tourism revenues," Hochul said.