St. Louis' Airports: One Sits Idle, the Other has a Barely Used Its New 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.

In the mid-1990s, officials of both airports were counting on TWA to steadily increase the number of flights and passengers. That may have been wishful thinking. TWA was in terrible financial condition, filing for bankruptcy court protection in 1992 and in 1995. Runway construction at Lambert was approved in 1998, and a year later TWA was the only U.S. carrier that lost money, reporting a $353 million loss.

A 2001 TWA bankruptcy filing

TWA filed a third time for bankruptcy court protection in 2001, a day after it agreed to sell its airline assets to American Airlines. American cut the number of Lambert flights in half and brought in regional jets with fewer seats. A nationwide recession and a travel cutback after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist hijackings added to the decline.

In terms of passengers boarding U.S. airlines, Lambert ranked as the 10th-busiest U.S. airport in 1998 but dropped to No.32 in 2005, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Krekeler, who joined the board of commissioners in 2000 when a new seat was added, says he proposed immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, to halt runway construction. Most of the money had not yet been spent. But building the runway created jobs, and the other airport officials, with hopes that Lambert would grow in the future, decided to move forward, Krekeler says.

The airport expansion was supposed to usher in a new century of economic progress for the region, and Dolliole, the Lambert director, believes that will still happen. The new runway, he says, "will prove to be an economic stimulus for the area."

Passenger flights, though, dropped 48% between approval of the runway project in 1998 and last year, according to data from Back Aviation Solutions, a consulting company. Air traffic controllers are handling about 900 fewer flights daily than before American took over TWA's assets, says Brad Rosenthal, president of the St. Louis chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union. Controllers now handle about 700 flights per day, he says.

In the view of the FAA, the new Lambert runway is off to a successful start.

In its first eight months, the number of flights at the airport fell 9% compared with the same year-earlier period, yet delays dropped 59%, says FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro. "It looks like the new runway, along with a continuing reduction in flights, is helping to improve the efficiency of the air traffic operation," he says.

"That's baloney," says Bill Otto, former president of the local controllers' union who worked at the FAA's regional air traffic control facility before retiring last week.

Otto says traffic at Lambert has been so light that the new runway is not a factor in reduced delays. "We would have had the same drop in delays without the new runway," he says.

Need for new runway seen

Even the harshest critics of the runway, though, acknowledge that the airport needed to expand. The airport had two parallel runways that were built too close together to handle simultaneous landings during bad weather. When traffic was heavy and weather was bad, only one runway could be used, causing a long line of incoming flights and delays that affected flight times nationwide.

Otto, whose house was one of 2,000 that the airport acquired to build the runway, says expansion of the airport was vital, but, in hindsight, "It looks like a very poor decision."

Critics say Lambert chose a plan that cost far too much, displaced too many homeowners and delivered a poorly designed runway for airlines and controllers.

Sara Barwinski, a social worker who fought the project, says the city of Bridgeton, Mo., was reduced by one-third. Besides the homes, it lost six churches and four schools.

"The runway was absolutely a mistake," says Barwinski, whose home was among those destroyed to make room for the new landing strip. "Six thousand people lost their homes for nothing."

Otto says approaching planes can't be seen from the control tower because it is so far from the runway. "It's not optimal for controllers," Rosenthal says. But controllers can safely monitor flights with ground radar systems and binoculars, he says.

Controllers at every large airport use binoculars and ground radar "as support tools to help them keep aircraft safely spaced from each other," says the FAA's Molinaro. "These aren't unusual items to use."

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