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.
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."
Krekeler says "several airlines," including Southwest, have requested not to land on the new runway because it is so far from the terminal. Planes must taxi up to three miles to the terminal and burn more fuel.
Airport spokeswoman Shirley Walls says the airport director's office has not been contacted by any airline about the matter. "Southwest has used the new runway," she says, though it is farther away from the terminal.
It's the "standard policy" of Southwest pilots to request landing on the older runways, says airline spokeswoman Beth Harbin. "Our preference is always to use the runway closest to the gate."
Still hoping airlines will expand
Across the Mississippi on Illinois farmland, not a single plane is at MidAmerica Airport, and not one lands during a half-hour wait on a late afternoon in early December. The military air traffic controllers, who are affiliated with adjoining Scott Air Force Base, get little work handling airline flights.
Las-Vegas-based Allegiant Air is the only airline using the airport, and it operates flights just three days a week. The airline lands five flights a week from Las Vegas and Orlando, says spokeswoman Tyri Squyres, and then quickly turns around its MD-80 jets on outbound flights.
MidAmerica handled about 60,000 airline passengers last year, but most of its 14,000 takeoffs and landings were by military aircraft. The airport and Scott Air Force Base are "tied together" like "Siamese twins," Cantwell, the director, says. The base sustains 11,000 jobs and creates $2.2 billion of economic impact each year, he says.
Cantwell talks confidently about MidAmerica's commercial prospects and guarantees that a yet unnamed air cargo company will begin service to the airport by late June. He also hopes to attract regional passenger airlines. Today's snapshot of the airport "has nothing to do with tomorrow," he says.
Boyd, the consultant, sees no future for MidAmerica. He says his company cautioned the state of Illinois in 1995 that the airport shouldn't be built unless it had "more reasonable forecast assumptions" and a signed contract with a big airline.
MidAmerica "was a failure from the start as a reliever for Lambert," he says. "Then they tried to claim it would be a great cargo airport, despite the fact that air cargo dynamics require that the goods carried be near point of manufacture or point of consumption. Unless it's cow feed, MidAmerica is out of the game."