Lambert-Saint Louis International Airport, Still Taxiing
2015 was, at first blush, a good year for Lambert Saint Louis International Airport (STL). Passenger levels are up, the airport added a couple of new destinations, and a long-awaited renovation project was completed. There’s talk of a new Mexico hub. The airport manager, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, was named airport director of the year by Airport Revenue News.
But looks can be deceiving. For one thing, passenger growth at the airport (1%) lagged behind the national average (4%). This mirrors Saint Louis’s overall economic performance in the last year, which, while improving, is growing at a slower rate than much of the rest of the country. Look back further than last year and the situation is worse. STL’s traffic is still 12% lower than it was just before the recession. In fact, there were fewer passengers and flights from STL in 2015 than there were in 2010, after the recession had ended.
The only category where the airport is has had success is in adding non-stop destinations, which increased from 55 to 60 in the last five years. But even here, improvement isn't necessarily as impressive as it first appears. Most of the added destinations are seasonal options, bound for resort destinations in the Caribbean. STL flies to fewer national, year-round destinations than it did five years ago.
Why is STL having such a difficult attracting more flights and more passengers? The culprit may be a slow Saint Louis economy, which airport managers have little control over. However, the airport is still dealing with a hangover from the new (and ultimately unneeded) runway it built in the early 2000s. That has made the airport more expensive, and therefore less attractive for additional airline service. For example, low-cost airline Allegiant recently chose to use Mid-America Regional Airport for new flights to Florida.
While it’s easy to blame things outside the airport’s control, STL’s leadership can make the best of a difficult situation. That means resisting the impulse, so prevalent in civic affairs, to try spending their way to health with lavish improvement projects. Providing efficient and plentiful air service is better than less service and more luggage shops. Bringing in more freight traffic may allow the airport to use extra room it thought it would need for the TWA hub. If STL leadership can implement a cost-effective, customer-oriented strategy, it will help not just the airport, but the entire Saint Louis region.