by Susan Mikula Campbell
Allegiant Airlines announced this week a new, twice weekly, nonstop jet service between Niagara Falls International Airport and Southwest Florida, via Punta Gorda Airport, will begin June 29.
Tuesday's announcement makes it a triple dip of good news for the airport in less than a week.
Last Thursday, April 5, at a press conference at the airport, Allegiant announced a new flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., beginning July 1, and Congresswoman Kathy Hochul announced that $11.7 million in Federal Aviation Administration funding is on its way so construction can begin immediately on the rehabilitation of NFIA's main runway.
Punta Gorda will be the fourth nonstop Florida destination served by the low cost airline out of Niagara Falls International Airport. Allegiant also has nonstop service to Orlando and St. Petersburg/Clearwater, Fla. Direct Air, which suddenly halted flights without notice last month due to financial problems, previously handled a popular Punta Gorda service out of NFIA.
"We have been able to grow rapidly in Niagara Falls and have been very pleased with how popular our vacation offerings have been with area residents. We're excited to offer yet another affordable and convenient way for Niagara Falls and southern Ontario residents to get away to Florida," Andrew C. Levy, Allegiant president, said of the Punta Gorda announcement. "We are confident the community will appreciate the value of flying nonstop to southwest Florida and the great deals we offer on vacation packages."
Allegiant indicated it will introduce this new service with fares as low as $74.99 one way.
Allegiant, which began service out of NFIA in December, was ranked ninth in the 2011 Forbes' Best Small Companies. Allegiant was also recently named one of FORTUNE magazine's "100 Fastest-Growing Companies" for the second consecutive year.
Keith Hansen, Allegiant director of airports, said Allegiant's policy is to "give the customer the freedom to customize." 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 said.
Hansen 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.
Currently, the Fort Lauderdale flights are listed for Sundays and Thursdays and the Punta Gorda flights for Mondays and Fridays.
Hochul's announcement of $11.7 million in FAA funding for the airport's main runway was good news for both the airport and the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
"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 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. Construction on the 11,000-foot runway by Sealand Contractors of Rochester was expected to start this week and be completed by December.
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. The main runway is starting to crack and that needs to be repaired well before it can become 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.