Runway to Nowhere? Lambert Prepares to Open $1.1B Runway Planned in Better Days

VISION * Congestion at Lambert Field in the 1990s was expected to increase. * Weather delays were aggravated by the placement of existing runways. REALITY * Traffic fell after 9/11 and when American Airlines cut flights...


VISION

* Congestion at Lambert Field in the 1990s was expected to increase.

* Weather delays were aggravated by the placement of existing runways.

REALITY

* Traffic fell after 9/11 and when American Airlines cut flights in 2003.

* Bad-weather landings are still hindered, because a nearby hangar remains.

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Leonard Griggs keeps his pocket calendar handy, and it's not just to check appointments.

Griggs, who retired as Lambert Field's airport director 15 months ago, still gets badgered about the authority's decade-old decision to build a new runway southwest of the airfield. He keeps technical information about the project glued to the back cover "just so I can be correct in what I'm saying."

On Thursday, the first commercial flights will begin using the $1.1 billion runway, marking the end of a project that prompted protests and lawsuits and was built to relieve congestion that no longer exists.

When the federal government approved the runway plan in 1998, Lambert was buzzing. It was TWA's primary hub. Strong storms or heavy fog restricted landings to one runway, triggering a backlog that rippled across the country.

There were plenty of supporters for a new runway. But not everyone liked Lambert's plans. Construction meant razing more than 2,000 homes, churches, schools and businesses in neighboring Bridgeton. St. Charles residents argued that the runway would bring airport noise to their living rooms. A chorus of pilots and air traffic controllers said the venture would never pay off.

Fast-forward nearly one decade. Lambert air traffic was 36 percent less last year than before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and before American Airlines cut its St. Louis flight schedule by half. Delays are down. All but two of the 14 gates in Concourse D are empty.

Nevertheless, Griggs said, he has no regrets. Air traffic in St. Louis is recovering from American's blow, he points out. Lambert's reality in the 1990s, he said, presented him with no other choice but to press ahead.

A changed reality

On Thursday, a decade's worth of elected and aviation officials will gather near the 9,000-foot-long ribbon of concrete -- the most expensive improvement project in St. Louis history. The runway is 150 feet wide and two feet thick, with 10 inches of crushed rock beneath it. There's enough pavement there to put a 26-foot layer of concrete over 30 baseball infields.

Elected and aviation officials will undoubtedly applaud the runway effort and the fact that it remained on time and under budget once construction started. Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers said he had put differences with the airport behind him and planned to attend. Later that afternoon, the strip will open to traffic.

Few, if any, passengers will notice, Airport Director Kevin Dolliole said. The runway is intended to reduce delays. But in the last five years, delays of 30 minutes or more at Lambert dropped by half without it, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

"The flying public doesn't recognize delays until they get to be pretty extreme," said Dolliole, who took over as director in May. "Unless we were back in the situation of extreme delays on a regular basis, they won't notice the impact or the difference."

Lambert faces a different reality than the "bursting at the seams" conditions it faced in the 1990s. During the heyday of TWA, many who'd never ventured into St. Louis had at least flown through its airport. Waiting in a holding pattern was common. So was sitting on the tarmac.

"It was not uncommon to be No. 10 for departure at Lambert, and it was not uncommon to have six or seven airlines on the approach at the some time," said Steve, a former TWA pilot who now flies for American Airlines and asked that his last name not be used. "Now it's rare for there to be two airplanes in line at the same time."

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