New Runway for St. Louis Downtown Airport

St. Louis Downtown Airport will soon extend and resurface its runways in an effort to keep its biggest customer flying.

Airport leaders had a problem on their hands when their 7,001-foot main strip, which had an expected lifespan of 15-20 years, hit its 16th birthday. With the replacement of the main runway inevitable, airport operators knew their secondary strip, measured at only 3,800 square feet, can't accommodate the large business jets that Midcoast Aviation flies in, outfits and then jets out to customers around the world.

"We couldn't allow that to happen," Airport Director Bob McDaniel said of the possibility that the airport would have to suspend jet traffic. "So we had to get a little bit creative."

To solve the problem, McDaniel said the 3,800-foot runway will be extended to 5,300 feet, which will be enough space for larger business jets to land. When that's done, the 7,001-foot main strip will be repaved. The work, which is expected to cost about $2.2 million, is planned to start in September and be complete a year later.

Midcoast Vice Chairman Gary Driggers said it would be impossible to keep his company going without a runway capable of handling the medium and large business jets it modifies, services and repairs.

Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier flies the jets it makes into the airport in a "green" state, which means that they are basically empty, unpainted shells with only temporary seating for the crew and basic navigational and communications equipment. Like the process of building a new house, buyers of the planes come in and pick out carpet, window coverings, seats and other amenities including everything from bedrooms to boardrooms. They also can upgrade the electronics and avionics in the planes.

About 80 jets from Bombardier are currently at Midcoast for the process of being taken from clean slates to custom-outfitted private and corporate planes by a crew of more than 1,000 workers in three shifts.

"In addition to those planes, we have a backlog of well in excess of 90 more jets," Driggers said. "That will easily keep us busy until at least 2011."

And that doesn't include the planes manufactured by other companies that Midcoast overhauls or retrofits for private buyers and businesses.

Midcoast has set up planes for actors Harrison Ford and Jim Carrey as well as heads of state.

"We've done jets for leaders in Africa and the Middle East," Driggers said. "We've also done the Canadian Prime Minister's planes, Canada's Air Force One and Air Force Two."

Airport assistant director Wendi Sellers said St. Louis Downtown Airport has become popular with jet business people since Midcoast's business took off after the terrorists attacks of 2001.

Musicians and actors who perform in St. Louis prefer the privacy and convenience of the airport over the more congested and distant Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Sports teams also fly to the airport with increasing frequency for their games in St. Louis. The Detroit Tigers flew in for the 2006 World Series and the Detroit Redwings have flown in for several games this year.

According to McDaniel, the runway work coincides with the airport's $7 million project to replace its aging air traffic control tower with one that is twice as tall at 10 stories high.

The new tower will make the airport safer by allowing air traffic controllers to see planes better both in the air and on the ground.

The cab, or top of the tower where air traffic controllers sit, will be hoisted to the top of the growing structure within two weeks.

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