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.

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."

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