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...

Mike Patton of De Soto has noticed. In the spring, he finds himself at Lambert almost weekly to pick up migrant workers who work summers at his landscaping business. Lately, flights have been early. "Look how uncrowded it is," he said, sitting near the Main Terminal's baggage claim. "Even during the holidays it wasn't that crowded."

Aviation officials say it was impossible to predict the changing circumstances that followed Sept. 11. The prospect of TWA's demise was considered when putting together the financing plan for expansion, Griggs said. But no one forecast the cuts that American Airlines would make in 2003, he added.

"While they went through a rocky period, we were very optimistic for their continued growth in St. Louis," Griggs said.

Decades of need

Planning and building a runway at a major airport typically takes 15 to 20 years, mostly because of time-consuming environmental studies and lawsuits. Aviation officials base the need on indicators and projections.

In the 1990s, TWA officials partly blamed bad-weather delays at Lambert for its problems with on-time performance. Southwest Airlines, the second largest carrier, said a new runway would give it more options for expanding service.

Federal aviation officials argued that a new runway addressed problems that went beyond St. Louis. They said it was essential to improving the national airspace system.

"Based on everything that was happening from 1980 to 2000, that runway was desperately needed," said Tom Coates, who retired in February as the FAA's airport capacity manager for the Midwest.

In July, airlines will begin paying their 23 percent share of the runway's costs. The cost to airlines will amount to a $1 surcharge for every boarding passenger at Lambert. The rest of the money comes from the airport and the FAA, from funds financed by user fees.

When asked if the runway is worth the money, Pete Houghton, director of properties for Southwest Airlines, said it's a difficult question to answer given current traffic.

"We obviously think the runway, if you started it today, wouldn't be necessary," he said.

FAA's traffic projections for Lambert changed drastically. By 2020, the airport still will have fewer arrivals and departures than it did at any time during the 1990s, according to the Terminal Area Forecast Summary published in 2004. Its status is expected to slip to 28th in terms of annual flights, from 14th in 2002.

St. Louisans shouldn't expect more air service as a result of the runway, Dolliole said.

"There's no 'build it and they will come,'" he said. "You don't build facilities for the sake of bringing service in."

But the runway will benefit the airport, he added. Traffic has steadily increased since American reductions in 2003. As more flights come online, he said, the airport will be more capable to handle them.

"Without it, (delays) would continue to build and we'd eventually get back to a point where we were before when it was quite noticeable," he said.

Lambert's existing two runways are 1,300 feet apart, too close together to allow for simultaneous landings in bad weather. The new runway was build to accommodate landings in zero visibility and thereby reduce weather delays.

For the next two years, the airport still will be down to one runway in such conditions, when planes are landing from the east. An American Airlines maintenance hangar will remain within the runway protection zone at least through the end of 2007. In runway plans, it was marked for demolition.

The decision to let the maintenance hangar remain came two years ago, when airline representatives told Lambert officials that they couldn't afford to build a new one. Griggs said low traffic numbers reduced the need for having zero-visibility landings from the east.

In fact, there was no time last year when weather forced the closure of a runway, said Robert Dopuch, general manager of the expansion program.

Rowan Raftery, a longtime opponent of the airport's latest expansion, criticized that decision, and called the runway a white elephant: "An endeavor or adventure that proves to be a conspicuous failure, something of a dubious or limited value," he said.

In the Main Terminal last week, passengers said they were once eager for a new runway. Now, they'd rather have larger planes and more direct flights.

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