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 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."

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.

"I just wish we were still a hub," said Rachel Rubin, waiting with her teenage daughter, Julia Rubin, at an airport Starbucks. "It's just a shame it's so much harder to find flights out of here."

Jeff Mueller mostly flies as a business traveler. He recalled the lines and stressful delays he used to encounter at Lambert. "I've not waited more than 10 minutes for a flight in a while," he said. As for the runway, he shrugged and said, "At this point, it doesn't seem like we need it."

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