When I was a young boy, one of my favorite things to do was to go to the airport with my dad, not to fly anywhere, but to eat at Flying Tigers restaurant. We would eat and listen to the air traffic controllers, watch the planes take off and land, and try to guess which conversation belonged to which plane.
I told this story to Bill Vanecek, Director of Aviation (NFTA), who said that families still come out to the airport to watch the planes (mainly landing), and that Mercy Flight had built a little plot of grass with a play area for kids, so that plane enthusiasts could still observe the runway traffic. The observation area is on the east end of Mercy Flight on Amherst Villa Road off Youngs. They have a helicopter on display and seating areas – also a wooden swing, when the weather is nice, Bill told me. I found that fascinating, while wondering how many families with young kids were even aware that this amenity even existed.
Before getting to the crux of our conversation – the expansion of the airport – I asked Bill how he came to be the Director of Aviation at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BNIA). He explained that it was a Buffalo girl that he was dating. “I remember back then that People’s Express was around,” he said. “That was the airline that (similar to trains) would give you a number, and you paid once you got on the plane. One time, heading out of Buffalo, I had $20 in my pocket, because the ticket was supposed to be $17. When I got on the plane, they said it was $35. As I searched my pockets, I realized that my girlfriend (future wife) had slipped a 20 dollar bill in my pocket for beer money. It saved me on that day.”
Listening to the old stories of flying-travel in Buffalo, it was hard not to think back to the state of flying into and out of Buffalo. Do you remember the days when Buffalo used to have two airport terminals? Like everything else in Buffalo at the time, the airport was in an inescapable holding pattern.
But that was before Bill’s time as Director of Aviation of course, even though he has now been in the position for 22 years.
“I started off as a public accountant for 7 years,” he said. “We moved to Dallas and I got a job with American Airlines. That’s where I finished my Master’s Degree. When I got home, my (then) wife told me, ‘Congratulations, I want to go home.’ That was in 1998. I told her that I would move to Buffalo if I could get a job that makes sense. It turns out that the NFTA was looking for a new CFO, so I met with the executive director at the time. Someone internally was placed into the CFO position, but an entirely new position had opened up as Director of Aviation.”
Once I had Bill’s backstory down pat, I figured that it was time to discuss the airport’s newest expansion project, which broke ground on September 23, 2019.
Gone are the days of the two terminal airport. In their place is the centralized sleek and modern terminal building that we see today (project completed in 1997). What was once a seemingly sleepy little airport had grown, and was suddenly attracting new airlines and flyers from further away.
“When I first got to Buffalo, we were doing 1.5 million “planements” per year,” Bill told me. “We had 1.5 million people get on planes to fly out of BNIA in 1998. We had approximately 28,000 air carrier flights out of BUF that year. Then we were recruiting airlines in 2000, and got Jet Blue and Southwest. Southwest required that we put in additional gates, so we moved forward with an ‘east end’ expansion. A couple other carriers came and went. We peaked at 5.2 million planements, which led to some flow issues that needed to be resolved – mainly where people are funneled through as they exit the terminal, before going down to baggage claim.”
In order to alleviate the bottleneck and free up some space, while creating a better flow, the decision was made to add an additional 41,000 square feet of “walkway” on the east side of the building (currently underway). That’s where Jet Blue, United, and Southwest passengers will be routed to a huge meet-and-greet area with ‘soft seating,’ desktops with outlets for computers and phones, and large restrooms.
From there, two escalators will take passengers down to a 39,000 square foot renovated baggage claim with new sloped plates (for the baggage) on a big oval carousel – the bags will no longer disappear behind the wall once they make an initial loop.
“We had to resolve the problem of the flat plates that go behind the wall,” Bill told me. “We realized that, after a Canadian passenger jumped onto the carousel and went all the way back. That’s a security issue of course. This new project means that we are now doubling the inbound baggage capacity.”
Another brand new 11000 structure is being constructed on the west side, servicing American and Frontier Airlines – that “walkway” will lead departing passengers directly to the baggage claim as well.
Once this $80 million project is complete in the fall of 2022, the airport will look a whole lot different, and it will flow a lot different. In a post-pandemic society, people are going to be looking for more room to spread out, and that’s exactly what they are going to get.
Currently there is one baggage carousel that is complete. In April, the west expansion will wrap up, along with a second baggage carousel in May. From there, the east expansion will be completed in June, and then in March the third and fourth carousel will be done (in early 2022).
As we can see, this project is well on its way towards completion, along with some additional amenities to come (including new concessions opportunities). More than anything else, the plan is to get as many people back to traveling, so that the airport can get back to the operational business at hand.
“We’re looking to get back to 5 million plus as quickly as possible,” Bill told me.
When people do decide to jet set out of Buffalo, or pay this city a visit, they will happily find that a lot has changed…
Now, fasten your seatbelts, because we’re making our final approach.