Longtime critics of Lambert Field's runway expansion say the decision to leave a maintenance building near the eastern edge of the airstrip flies in the face of what the $1.1 billion project was intended for: landings in all kinds of weather conditions.
At least through the end of next year, an American Airlines maintenance hangar will remain within 2,500 feet of the new runway, limiting landings from the east during low visibility. Lambert's inability to accommodate simultaneous landings on its two existing runways during bad weather was the main reason proponents cited the need for a third runway.
But for the next two years at least, the bad-weather benefit of the third runway will occur only when planes land from the west. When they're landing from the east and the visibility is poor, they'll continue taking turns on one airstrip.
"It's further evidence of how unnecessary the runway was, and is now," said Sara Barwinski, a Bridgeton resident forced to relocate for the runway. "It just feels like, what a sad waste. I don't think it behooves anyone for us to say we told you so."
The formal agreement to allow American to remain in the maintenance hangar came Wednesday with a vote of the airport commission. The informal decision, however, was made about two years ago, airport and American officials say, when the airline approached Lambert's properties department about remaining in the hangar.
The airline was reeling from financial losses and had reduced its St. Louis flight schedule by half. Rebuilding the hangar would have cost American around $24 million and 300 workers their jobs, according to Lambert's estimates. The airline, Lambert's largest carrier, didn't have the money.
"It was a financial constraint," American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said. If the hangar is to come down, "we're not going to put it back up again."
Deputy Airport Director Gerard Slay said Lambert's staff worked with the Federal Aviation Administration on a plan that would allow the runway to operate without tearing down the building. They considered the recent drop in flights and the amount of time the airport experiences low-visibility conditions. From those calculations, he said, airport staff decided to allow the hangar to remain, in exchange for limited bad-weather landings on the runway.
"We determined that leaving that hangar in place would have no impact on operations," Slay said.
They also put off relocating two Missouri Air National Guard buildings that also sit within the runway protection zone. Together, the decisions saved the airport around $6.5 million.
Rowan Raftery, another Bridgeton resident and staunch critic of the project, criticized leaders for forcing buyouts of more than 2,000 homes and businesses in neighboring Bridgeton for a runway with limitations.
From the east, the runway will carry a Category 1 classification, which means it will accommodate landings when visible from more than 200 feet in the air. It's outfitted to be accommodate zero-visibility landings -- Category 3 -- from both directions.
"The planning of Lambert and the city of St. Louis is not too swift," Raftery said. "So now they've got a billion dollars worth of concrete out there. What are they going to do with it?"
The runway will boost airport capacity by 34 percent on a clear day and 63 percent in sloppy weather, according to FAA projections. It also will serve an airport that's a shell of what it was during TWA's glory days, when Lambert's gates were full. Annual departures dropped about 38 percent between 2000 and 2004, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Airport officials are trying to rebound from the losses.
"I hope it's needed," Jim Shrewsbury, an airport commissioner and St. Louis aldermanic president. "I hope the traffic comes back. . . . If you don't have the runway, it would be harder for traffic to come back."
Airport officials say the runway is key to recouping flights, rather than alleviating the backups that occurred several years ago. It's scheduled to start handling flights April 13.
"The runway is still needed to support the growth and increased operations, and to attract new air carriers to St. Louis," Slay said.
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