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By The Way
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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Buffalo airport workers trapped by blizzard rallied to feed travelers

Retail supervisors distributed free food for days while Buffalo Niagara International Airport was closed

Delaware North retail manager Erik Maida, right, and retail supervisor Samhan Kahn. (Courtesy of Delaware North)
5 min

Over Christmas weekend, Erik Maida’s backup plan was to serve his guests peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Fortunately, the retail department manager at Buffalo Niagara International Airport was able to rustle up enough prepackaged food options — plus such Sunday football fare as chicken fingers and french fries — to feed the nearly 200 people stranded at the facility during Western New York’s deadliest blizzard in 50 years.

“We were thinking, okay, if this [storm] continues, at some point we are going to run out of grab-‘n’-go sandwiches. As a last resort, we were going to crank out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because peanut butter and jelly can get you through the day,” said Maida, who manages the airport’s shops for Delaware North, which runs food service and retail operations in nearly two dozen U.S. airports.

When Maida showed up at work Friday morning, he was not prepared for what would transpire over the next three days: caring for 196 travelers, according to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s count, who were trapped at the airport with few resources beyond the items packed in their luggage or stuffed inside their coat pockets.

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But he rose to the challenge. Even though Maida’s expertise is in retail, not food service, he assumed an emergency response role while the streets were impassable and the airport was shuttered. Buffalo Niagara International was finally scheduled to reopen Wednesday morning.

“At the end of the day, this all comes down to doing the right thing,” said Maida, who started working at the airport in June 2021. “Their care and welfare were basically in our hands. They’re relying on us.”

When the weather started to turn dreadful Friday, Maida locked up all but one store, Jet Set West, and sent his five employees home. Around 11:30 a.m., about 90 minutes before NFTA officially closed the airport, he attempted to drive home. Like many in the city, he was on the road despite a travel ban. Sheets of ice and blankets of snow thwarted his escape.

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In the whiteout, Maida ended up at the Enterprise car rental site, following a pair of blinking hazard lights back to the airport. He called Samhan Kahn, a retail supervisor for Delaware North who had fallen asleep in his car in the parking lot after his overnight shift, and urged him to return to the safety of the airport. They then shifted their focus to the passengers congregating in the lobbies before the security checkpoints.

“It was just a matter of us getting the food out to the people that were rescued, and it was just nonstop,” Maida said.

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Maida and Kahn initially served sandwiches to about 60 passengers whose flights had been canceled earlier that day. By midafternoon, the number had swelled to 196, after first responders started bringing in motorists rescued from the airport perimeter. According to Helen Tederous, an NFTA spokeswoman, the authority’s police, firefighters and airfield crews spent Friday saving people trapped in their vehicles and providing them with such basic necessities as food, water and shelter.

“Everyone at the airport went into a live-saving mode,” she said. “NFTA employees did whatever they had to do to help.”

Maida and Kahn, who had all of Delaware North’s bars, restaurants and retail outlets at their disposal, checked the company’s food and beverage stocks and started meal-planning. Fortunately, they had received a delivery that morning and had enough premade sandwiches on hand to stretch several days.

“Grab-‘n’-go inventory really carried us,” Maida said. “We were able to feed even the fire department and the NFTA police.”

With the assistance of superintendents who were also on the premises, Maida and Kahn set up a dining schedule to provide free meals for their overnight guests, who had slept on cots and padded mats provided by the airport. Maida started brewing coffee at 6 a.m., and from 7 to 9, they served muffins thawed the night before and fruit.

A callout for anyone with restaurant experience landed them two travelers who knew their way around a commercial kitchen, especially the fryer. At around 4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, they offered chicken tenders and french fries from the Anchor Bar. The sole vegetarian in the group dined on chicken Caesar salad with the protein plucked from the greens.

“This was us doing what we can to make sure people can survive,” Maida said. “We would not charge anybody.”

In addition, Maida assembled a Christmas care package for a family of six who were hunkered down at the nearby firehouse. The ad hoc Santa sent the four little ones, who ranged from 8 years old to 9 months, a Melissa & Doug activity book, stuffed plush buffalo, rubber buffalo stress ball and a onesie in the Buffalo Bills team colors of red, white and blue.

“He had all of the support from us,” said Chris Chila, vice president of operations for Delaware North’s travel division. “We could not be more proud of Erik and Sam.”

On Sunday, the rescued party received word that the roads were clear enough for them to leave the airport in the early evening. Maida sent them off with sandwiches. He returned home the following morning to celebrate a belated Christmas.

“My family was really upset when they woke up Sunday morning. They said it just did not feel like Christmas,” he said. Later, Maida said, his wife and 9-year-old son told him that “it literally felt like Christmas” when they knew he was finally on his way back.