Buffalo Thinks It’s Going to Get Transatlantic Flights. That’s Nuts.

The director of Buffalo’s transportation authority suggests a transatlantic flight is only a matter of time because “big eastern airports are encountering more congestion, and European carriers are considering midsize U.S. airports like Buffalo.”

The argument is that if Newburgh-Stewart airport in New York and Hartford, Connecticut can support transatlantic flights then they can too.

  • But Norwegian calls Stewart ‘New York’-Stewart. They’ve chosen it as a low cost and uncongested airport within reach of the New York City metropolitan area. The comparable pre-existing size of the airport’s traffic wasn’t the draw or justification for transatlantic service (and it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that the gamble will work).

  • And Connecticut has the highest per capita income in the U.S. Yet Aer Lingus needed subsidies in the form of “$9 million in revenue guarantees over two years..along with a $3.6 million marketing program over the next three years” in order to start service.

Here are the 5 largest employers in the greater Buffalo area. Note that only one employs 10,000 people, and none are largely focused on the European market.

Until recently my home of Austin was marginal for transatlantic service. British Airways came in and offered a Boeing 787 flight, it was the perfect example of what the 787 was made for. And BA has a strong partner in the city in American Airlines. The service did well enough that it’s been upgauged much of the year to a Boeing 777. Condor came in and offered non-daily flights to Frankfurt, and Norwegian has announced London service as well.

That’s all within the past 3 years. And Austin is home to Dell, Whole Foods, and the University of Texas at Austin. Apple, IBM, and Samsung all have over 6000 employees in Austin. Accenture, Amazon, and AT&T are major employers in the area. And it’s the capital of Texas. And it’s been marginal to support transatlantic flights.

Granted Buffalo is geographically better-positioned for smaller aircraft to Europe. But the city’s population peaked in 1950. Per capita income is about 30% below that of the New York City area.

Steel production at Bethlehem Steel on the shores of Lake Erie, 1973, source: EPA via Wikimedia Commons

And Buffalo airport is a two hour drive from Toronto’s Pearson and less than an hour in the air to Philadelphia, Boston, New York JFK and Newark.

Somehow Buffalo thinks their proximity to other major population centers helps their cause.

[The airport’s marketing manager will] often display a nighttime photo of Western New York and Southern Ontario taken from space depicting a thick concentration of lights stretching from Toronto to Buffalo.

That image represents millions of potential airline customers.

“We have to think internationally,” Vanecek said. “And we can because the Canadians are a big part of this.”

When the Canadian dollar was stronger, and the US border friendlier, more Canadians crossed into the US to find cheap fares out of Buffalo. But even that’s dried up.

The number of people flying out of Buffalo’s airport has been on a long-term decline.

San Antonio, Indianapolis, Columbus, Milwaukee, West Palm Beach, and Jacksonville, Florida are all busier airports than Buffalo (although in fairness Western Europe is within range for a Buffalo 737 MAX 9 or 10, whereas these other airports are not in standard configuration).

But what about the other side of the market? Europeans want to fly to Toronto and want to fly to New York. Buffalo simply is neither a business nor leisure market for them. Carriers would be relying largely on the local Buffalo market. And the striking thing about the airport’s case for transatlantic service is that they seem to mention everything other than the number of people in Buffalo flying to Europe.

(HT: Airline Writer)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. As long as the US-Canada border is relatively straightforward to cross, Buffalo has a non-zero chance because its a Toronto airport #3. On the merits of Buffalo alone, nope.

  2. Buffalo Airport is an easy 40 minute drive to the Niagara Falls, Ontario (and the general Niagara region).

    With Toronto, you can always get stuck in pretty bad traffic even if you don’t want to go to downtown.

    I can see that some of the tourists might think about just flying to the US side of things and then taking a rental across the border.

    Lots of weddings with people from Asia up there.

  3. Just wondering, is it a fact that Canadian customers have dried up or just an assumption based on the exchange rate? I live in buffalo but in the airport a few days ago each of the other three customers I talked to in line were Canadian. I think there’s more to Canadians choosing to fly from Buffalo than the exchange rate.

  4. I think you’re incorrect. Canadians travelling from Toronto to Buffalo for flights is extremely common. There are multiple daily buses from Toronto to Buffalo airport. Whether true or not, Torontonians (and others within the GTA) assume travel originating from Buffalo is cheaper than a Toronto origination (this is often true as Toronto has one of the highest operating surcharges of any North American airport, more provincial tax, less competition, and a lack of lcc service). Knowing the market quite well, I see BUF succeeding so long as it’s serviced by LCCs.

  5. Gary. You are wrong.
    I would rather fly into BUF via ORD in Asia and get to the Niagara Region in 30 mins instead of 2-3 hours from YYZ.
    BUF is a blessing for close to a million people on each side of the border and BUF any day over YYZ.

  6. Completely wrong on several fronts. Buffalo would make an excellent 737 or 757 transatlantic flight market.

  7. It varies a lot but a good number of people in the outer reaches of the GTA use Buffalo. I’d say a long shot but possible.

    Or are you just mad the NFTA referred to themselves as “thought leaders?”

  8. Most US rental car co’s are seriously not down with taking their cars to Canada or Mex. Is the policy different in YYZ / BUF ? This is an additional headache, not to mention currency exchange if necessary – and having my electronics confiscated – that would absolutely NOT endear me to crossing the border to avoid an hour of traffic and/or save $50. Who are these BUF rationalizers trying to fool ???

  9. Yes, are lingus got major subsidies for Hartford – Dublin flights . But then Norwegian started Hartford – Edinburgh flights. Edinburgh, not even London! And Norwegian didn’t have subsidies like Aer Lingus. If Connecticut – Scotland flights can work, so can a Norwegian flight to Buffalo .

  10. Check out the new Starwood property called the Reikart House near BUF. I LOVED it. Just opened a month ago. One of the best near airport hotels I’ve been to in a long time.

  11. Living in the GTA I know a few people who have flown out of BUF to Florida or other U.S. destinations based on the fact it was cheaper. Personally I live close enough to YYZ and once I factor in all the time driving down to BUF, waiting at the border, the price of gas to get there, etc. the cost savings are very low or the cost is even higher, so it often isn’t worth it in my opinion. For others who live in the Niagara region it may actually be cheaper and faster to fly out of BUF compared to YYZ. Traffic in the Toronto area can get really bad, so for people living from Hamilton to Niagara Falls I could see the benefit of flying out of BUF instead of YYZ. With 250,000 people in Buffalo, 450,000 in the Niagara region, 550,000 in Hamilton and even 200,000 people in Rochester, I think a transatlantic flight from BUF could work, but only if it is an LCC and it definitely has to be a smaller aircraft.

  12. LOL. Another clueless New Yorker that knows nothing about SE Ontario and WNY (hey @Gary, they actually have indoor plumbing now) and thinks Upstate is anything north of Manhattan. LOL.

  13. I can understand the Buffalonian unhappiness with your post, as I live in a tertiary airline market myself, but none of the rebuttals have been based on fact rather than anecdote or opinion.

  14. As a Canadian who’s staying in Buffalo tonite to fly out of BUF you are very wrong and misinformed about airfare prices out of BUF compared to YYZ, and greatly misjudge the population of southern Ontario

  15. Passenger traffic declined from 5,278,000 to 4,596,000. Let’s compare that to the annual increases at Ft. Myers (RSW). Even the casinos in upstate NY are whining. Enough said!

  16. Niagara Falls is a tourist destination. But what are the connecting opportunities out of BUF? Could it be a lower cost alternative rather than connecting over JFK, PHL, EWR, BOS?

  17. Stick to pumping cards because you’re wrong as usual.

    WNY and Southern Ontario will be able to support new service.

  18. Why is a guy from Austin talking crap about Buffalo as though his hometown was NYC? Typical Texas arrogance.

  19. @bob, marc, jose and all the rest of you who think buffalo is important
    buffalo is a dump, it will always be a dump
    the reason people from toronto go to buffalo is because of cheap DOMESTIC flights and more non stop destinations than from YYZ, but IF buffalo gets ONE europe destination, most likely the price difference will not justify the drive AND for 6 months of the year, there is no european traffic TO buffalo
    All of you are very emotional but clueless on the economics, connections, consumer behavior and all the other reasons that make a route viable

  20. I sympathize with Matt and others on this thread, but the declining pax numbers at BUF are devastating, reflecting the declining population and fortunes of WNY. And the demand from abroad, if any, would be highly seasonal. Close-in Canadians will continue to come to BUF for US domestic flights, but for Europe, they will continue to go to YYZ. Even Norwegian would think twice about serving BUF. I’m originally from Buffalo and return every few years to visit family. I’ll be flying in from NYC in October and the airlines that fly nonstop to BUF (Delta, JB, and United) only use small regional jets now, which is not how it used to be. As a tall guy, I’m not a happy camper.

  21. Yup, as with others – this isn’t about Buffalo – it’s about the greater Toronto, which is a short drive away. Pretty straight forward actually, and perfect for a carrier like Norwegian.

  22. According to the City’s 2013 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report,[28] the principal employers in the Buffalo Metropolitan Area are:

    # Employer # of Employees
    1 State of New York 15,123
    2 Federal Executive Board (United States of America) 11,183
    3 Kaleida Health 10,000
    4 University at Buffalo 6,733
    5 Catholic Health System 6,628
    6 Employer Services Corp 6,363
    7 M&T Bank 5,140
    8 Tops Markets 5,058
    9 Buffalo City School District 4,949
    10 Erie County 4,203

    “City of Buffalo 2013 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report”

  23. Does the Middle East count as trans Atlantic? I’d think one of the ME3 would look very closely at BUF given the frequency restrictions into Canada.

    Agree that BUF/Niagara Area airport authority is the “thought leader” here. Niagara Falls is a tourist destination and BUF serves as an airport for the Toronto area. Much more than Wegmans and m&t bank. Just like saying EWR serves Elizabeth NJ and any traffic to NYC must go to an airport in Queens.

  24. If the “reason” to start a transatlantic flight to Buffalo is to avoid congested gateway airports (Toronto, Philadelphia, NYC, DC, Chicago, etc.) it’s not going to fly. As of now, there are not enough nonstop flight to other US airports for BUF to function as a gateway airport.

    We used to live about 10 min from BUF. It was great for some domestic flights, but it was a pain going overseas from BUF since it required us to leave BUF very early in the AM to get to a real gateway airport, then board a transatlantic/transpacific/South American flights out a gateway airport after hours of layover. Coming back to BUF was also a torture, in reverse.

    I can’t imagine anybody preferring to connect in BUF for an international itinerary, as long as the airport continues to be not well-connected.

    I also lived in Central NY, in middle of the Catskills. We never flown out of Newburgh-Stewart, but at least there’s fairly decent train service to Manhattan along the Hudson Valley. There’s nothing like that near Buffalo. Except for a few bus service, one needs to drive to Toronto/Niagara region. Yes, Toronto/Niagara region is a wonderful place to visit.

    I now live near IND and if anything, it makes more sense for IND to have a transatlantic/transpacific flight, not BUF.

  25. I am sure you had the same stats and could make the same arguments and diagrams for Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh now has Wow, Condor and Delta flying transatlantic….

  26. Droopy, Pitt got those flights after plunking some substantial subsidies. Also, Pitt has a relatively healthier economy with corporations actually moving to town (Uber, Google are some examples) and also a big, underutilized airport which allows for cheap addition of flights.

  27. Went to college in Buffalo, live in Syracuse and used to work in Buffalo too. Perhaps it’s the Bills complex of always being at the bottom. It isn’t nuts. It’s economically plausible. I posted a similar URL to the NextDeparture page, with enthusiastic replies from Canadians.

    Buffalo should get it. Ever notice how Norwegian has NO Canadian flights? Not sure why. But the market is an immense untapped potential.

    Canadians cross the border so much that on a Canadian holiday, we would never go to the stores because it would be crazy. We even had Canadians who rent PO boxes to get US addresses. Think of all the things we do for churning, Canadians do the same thing because the cost of access is low and the rewards are high.

    Buffalo is 1 hr from Toronto, 2-3 hrs from SYR/ROC/CLE/Erie, PA/PIT (faster to BUF than PHL!!!!)

    What about a 5th freedom flight from BUF-SWF-XXX? or BUF-EWR/JFK-XXX?

    Huge untapped potential. It’s not just the city area, but the distance between major cities. 3 hrs isn’t hat bad of a drive for an average family or group of friends who would fly to Europe for a vacation. It isn’t that bad for a business that would have a pickup anyways. I’ve brought presenters in and driven them 1-2 hrs from airport because it was cheaper to fly them in from away and drive than to fly them in direct.

    Imagine Norwegian having a direct bus service from somewhere in Toronto straight to BUF? Double dip the charges. I’m certain that would not be the only cross border bus traffic generated.

    Luckily being in Syracuse, I’m 3-4 hours from: YYZ, YUL, YOW, PHL, NYC, BOS (5). Gives me pretty great freedom, but I would love a BUF. I could double dip on wings, friends, and flights.

  28. A quick check of random cities in Florida and random dates for travel show prices consistently $150-$200 cheaper out of BUF versus YYZ. It is a fact that flying out of BUF to most destinations is substantially cheaper than YYZ. For Canadians traveling to the US, the border becomes a non-issue, because you have to cross it either way. And despite the recent rhetoric about our border, none of my Canadian friends have ever mentioned recent problems crossing. BUF is absolutely not as convenient as YYZ, but lots of Canadians use it for cheaper fares (heck, *I’ve* used it for cheaper fares to Toronto). On the other side of the Atlantic, Niagara is a tourist destination and BUF is hands-down the closest airport. I can totally see a Norwegian coming in and calling their service “Toronto (Niagara).”

  29. I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I can tell you that people from Buffalo are a bit intense about their city so probably not a good idea to step into this debate. Heh.

  30. Even as I read the details of this debate, I think of the languishing hubs/former hubs/ flightless hubs around the country. RDU and CIN and MCI come to mind. American is almost desperately trying to route European flights through PHL. But geez Louise, who wants to get off a large plane sort of nowhere on the east coast, languish for hours and get on another jammed plane for another flight of 3-4 hours?
    I live in the Rocky Mountains, notoriously awkward to get to. I would much rather fly to/from the west coast and connect back on a shorter flight. My best solution is usually to fly to/from Chicago. Lots of service, lots of choices, usually available flights.
    Just to underline this mess, both European and American carriers talk about the “convenience” of direct flights from your hometown, but most often those flights end up being more expensive, always sold out or just plain crowded. US carriers would provide real service if they actually coordinated flights with connections to/from Europe. I am not talking about leaving home at 5AM flying 3 hours and waiting around Dallas or Atlanta airports for 6-7 hours before boarding a 10 hour flight to Europe.
    Of course, if you actually want to fly Stewart to Edinburgh, then lucky you.

  31. Not crazy at all, our gov’nr is pumping hundreds of millions into Buffalo and upstate region with subsidies and tax credits, the “Empire Zone!” The goal is to reinvent the area into entrepreneur and tech corridor. Buffalo is actually turning around, hell, of all the rust belt towns, they seem to actually be on the major upswing and the weather is pretty amazing there in the summer which makes up for the winter. Also random fact, by 2050 (only 30 years) climate projections have it being the new Napa valley with respect to high quality growing conditions for grapes.

  32. I live in Rochester, about 75 minutes from the airport in Buffalo and as a leisure customer, would certainly drive for a non-stop Western European destination. Clearly, a 747 to Heathrow is not in the cards, but as others have said, an extended range 737 or A320 could potentially work. I agree that a lack of a built-in core base of blue-chip corporate travel to Europe from BUF hampers the ability of a mainline carrier to make this kind of leap. Some of the population numbers cited in other comments talk about the city populations, but it’s probably more helpful to talk about population in the region. Buffalo/Niagara = 1,135,000, Rochester = 1,054,000, Southern Ontario (Hamilton, Niagara, not including Toronto) =1,261,528. @A2Zeek – no problems with taking a US rental car into Canada, we do it regularly when driving from Western NY to Michigan.

  33. I’m usually first in line to shoot down people claiming their city deserves more service, but in this case I think it might work. Here’s why:

    1. YYZ has some of the highest landing fees and government surcharges in the world, and AC is incredibly good at getting the Canadian government to protect its turf from foreign competitors (seriously, DL/AA/UA could learn a thing or two about how to screw the ME3 from them). The end result is high fares both domestically and internationally.

    2. The Golden Horseshoe (Toronto/Hamilton/Niagara) region has 8 million people. Add in nearby parts of southern Ontario and western New York, and you’re looking at a catchment area of about 11 million. A certain percentage of those will be price-sensitive enough to drive to BUF for lower fares. As a student in London (Ontario), I drove to BUF for cheap mileage runs on the weekend (years ago when such things were still possible).

    3. There aren’t any other options. If you live in New Jersey, you can drive to New York or Philadelphia or Baltimore. In Connecticut, you’ve got New York or Boston. If you’re in Toronto, the nearest intercontinental airport is 250 miles/4.5 hours west at DTW.

    4. Even in the Trump era, crossing the US border is really only a problem if you’re from certain minority groups (not that Homeland Security would EVER discriminate based on ethnicity or religion!) White folks going to BUF tend not to get much of a hassle. Coming back to Canada, of course, they don’t care what or who you bring so long as you pay the appropriate duty and taxes.

  34. The deal here is the ridiculous price of flights from Toronto (or any city in Canada) to any place. People drive to Buffalo from Canada to save serious money on flights: every day.

  35. It takes more like 2 hours to drive from BUF to downtown Toronto. Nice drive but not something a jetlagged passenger from a long flight from Europe would want to do.

    It’s all fine and good that leisure travelers in the Toronto/Niagara/Buffalo/Rochester region would enjoy a convenient flight to Europe. That’s not the issue here. The real question is this: Would anybody sane from Europe fly into BUF and then fly to a large hub city before flying to their final destination?

  36. Seems like an LCC would be a perfect fit, as they don’t rely on the lucrative paid business class customer to make money. Obviously there are better secondary airports are already online, but you might get the critical mass for outbound flights. Inbound is the bigger problem – nobody is coming from Europe to visit Buffalo, and Toronto is not a big draw either compared to NYC, BOS, etc. Gotta fill the planes both ways. And no business customers.

  37. BUF to Europe is flyable with anything smaller than an A380..and the airport is highly underrated. Two big selling points are available runway and terminal capacity.

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