NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. - The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority says it's been told by Direct Air, an air charter service which stood as the most popular carrier at the Niagara Falls Airport, that it will not resume flights until mid-May after abruptly halting them on Monday.
In a statement, the NFTA said: "We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused the users of our airport. The Niagara Falls International Airport had no control over the suspension of this service."
Direct Air posted the following statement on its website a short time later:
"Direct Air finds it necessary to suspend flight operation from Tuesday, March 13, 2012 until May 15, 2012. This decision was made to address operational matters. We are currently evaluating strategic alternatives for Direct Air.
Direct Air is committed to our passengers, employees, and the communities we serve.
Direct Air had previously posted another statement, which directed customers to contact their credit card company to arrange for a refund. Its current statement removed that language, and offers no advice on refunds.
2 On Your Side contacted First Niagara Bank about the matter. Passengers who used a First Niagara debit card are given the following advice in a statement sent to 2 On Your Side from the bank. "Given the situation with Direct Air's cancelation of flight service, customers who purchased tickets with a First Niagara card can request reimbursement by calling or visiting their local branch, or calling First Niagara's customer care center at 1-800-421-0004."
The statement also contradicts what one Direct Air official told a South Carolina newspaper on Tuesday morning, when he predicted flights would resume Wednesday. In the same article, Direct Air's Ed Warneck told The Sun News that the airline was incapacitated when it missed payment on a fuel bill, and was cut off by its supplier.
As a public charter company, Direct Air relies on other carriers to conduct its flights. The Transportation Department says that two of those companies, Xtra Airways and Sky King, said they were cutting off service because they had not been paid.
Two On Your Side placed numerous calls to Direct Air on Tuesday, none of which were answered. A recording only stated that customer service representatives were busy assisting other passengers.
Despite its apparent financial trouble, NFTA spokesman Douglas Hartmayer said Direct Air was gaining in popularity in Niagara Falls, noting that it went from carrying 3,100 passengers during January of 2011, to 8,200 for the same month in 2012, a 163% increase.
And while it may not control the situation with Direct Air, The NFTA certainly may rue the carrier's decision to stop operating during what would ordinarily be the prime, spring break season for flights to its Florida and South Carolina destinations.
According to Hartmayer, the NFTA will lose revenue in terms of landing fees Direct Air would have paid, and parking revenue from the passengers it would have flown, although he couldn't say for sure how much. "No one's gotten around to putting a pencil to it," Hartmayer told WGRZ-TV.
Now passengers are scrambling to find alternative flights. Angelo Cammelleri of Clarence bought six tickets to Punta Gorda for a family reunion during Spring Break. "I did a quick look, [the tickets are] probably about 3 times the price of what we originally booked for. So I'm not sure if we'll pursue that option or consider driving or maybe we'll consider postponing the trip altogether," he said.
His cousin, Eleanor Payne of Williamsville, is also flying down. She bought eight tickets for her family members on debit card. This was the first time her three young children were ever going to fly. "It may not be a reality, so it's very disheartening because this evening I'm going to have to go home and my husband and I are going to have to share the news with my children that we may have to rethink if we are even going to Florida at this point," she said.
Payne contacted her bank about a refund and was told after she fills out paperwork, she "might" get her refund in 60 days.
Two On Your Side also spoke with passengers stranded by the Direct Air debacle, trying to get home to Western New York. Fran Garus and his wife are vacationing in Punta Gorda and were supposed to fly home in the beginning of April. "We're stuck here and up in limbo for a couple weeks."
He says driving home is now an option, or booking a very expensive flight. "Now we're looking at flying out of Ft. Myers and with parking and everything we're looking at over $700," Garus said.
Passengers are left exasperated and scratching their heads. "
It is frustrating, you think in this day and age when you're booking with an airline that they couldn't just shut down for reasons other than weather or what have you," said Cammelleri.