ST. LOUIS -- On a weekday at 4:23 p.m., it's a ghost town at one of the nation's newest jet airports, MidAmerica.
No passengers occupy the modern, two-story terminal, which is just a 25-minute drive from downtown St. Louis. Nobody staffs the check-in counters, the snack bar, the tourism desk or the security checkpoints. There are no planes outside, no vehicles park or pull up at curbside, and no trucks load or unload at a shuttered cargo building nearby.
Just five commercial flights a week -- none on this early December day -- leave from MidAmerica, which in nine years of operation has come to epitomize the decline of greater St. Louis from a once-thriving center of U.S. aviation. The city gave Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic plane its name, and was the main hub for the once-mighty Trans World Airlines. But commercial airline departures from the metropolitan area have plummeted nearly 50% over the last decade.
As major cities across the USA struggle to expand their airports to accommodate growing air traffic, St. Louis has massive excess airport capacity. And MidAmerica is only part of its problem. In April, Lambert-St. Louis International, the city's main airport, opened a new runway at a cost of $1.1 billion. The largest public works project in city history, the runway displaced 6,000 residents of suburban Bridgeton from their homes. John Krekeler, one of 16 Lambert airport commissioners, estimates that only 5% of flights at Lambert use the new runway.
"The runway is a white elephant and is not needed now," Krekeler says. "A ridiculous amount of money was spent for a 9,000-foot patch of concrete. It's asinine that it cost $1.1 billion, while it cost $315 million at MidAmerica for a passenger terminal and a runway."
Whether the excess airport capacity in greater St. Louis, the USA's 18th-largest metro area, is a matter of bad luck or bad planning is a matter of dispute. Likewise, local officials differ on whether the city can ever grow into its airports by attracting additional passenger and cargo service. MidAmerica opened in 1998 across the Mississippi River in Mascoutah, Ill. That year, Lambert-St. Louis approved a plan to build an expensive new runway to handle future traffic growth. But TWA's financial condition deteriorated, and it sold its airline assets to American Airlines, which already had a Midwest hub in Chicago. American greatly reduced the number of St. Louis flights.
Expansion came as TWA failed
Critics say TWA's problems were known to local aviation officials before they moved ahead with the new airport and runway. They blame the Federal Aviation Administration for rosy traffic predictions and charge that the agency and local politicians squandered taxpayers' money to pay for the projects.
More than $165 million of federal government money was spent to build the Lambert runway, which was financed largely by airport bonds backed by payments from airlines and other airport tenants. Mostly federal money was used to pay for MidAmerica.
MidAmerica "was a failure from the start" and "has no real future," says aviation consultant Michael Boyd. "It was one of those projects concocted on doctored data and a lot of wishful thinking."
Airport managers at both airports disagree with their critics.
Kevin Dolliole, director of Lambert airport, says it was a good decision to build the runway because "it provides more capacity for the airport," and can prevent weather-related delays. The runway gives airlines "a better opportunity" to expand in St. Louis, he says.
Tim Cantwell, director of MidAmerica, says, "Everybody can look at the snapshot today and say the airport is underutilized." But, he says, passenger and cargo traffic will grow. Anyway, he says, MidAmerica is vital for the operations of Scott Air Force Base, which adjoins the airport.
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