Missourians Take to the Skies With Increasing Numbers
In 2014, total airline passengers grew at Missouri’s largest airports by just over 1 percent, reversing the losses over the past two years and giving those airports almost 11.6 million departing passengers (enplanements). This mirrors national trends, as total U.S. airline passengers grew at around 2.5 percent in 2014.
The fact that air traffic grew faster in the rest of the nation than it did in Missouri could be taken as meaning that Missouri is lagging the rest of the nation in growth. But in reality, most of Missouri’s airports—including Kansas City International (MCI), Springfield-Branson (SGF), Joplin Regional (JLN), and Columbia Regional (COU)—grew faster than the national average, in the case of Springfield, Joplin, and Columbia much faster (at 8.4 percent, 11 percent, and 16 percent, respectively). Springfield’s recent growth may be enough for it to regain its small hub airport status, which SGF lost following the recession. The performance of Missouri’s largest airport, Lambert-St. Louis International (STL), dampens the state’s overall numbers. Despite a concerted push to get more flights, STL’s passengers actually decreased by about 0.6 percent last year.
The poor performance of STL compared to other airports in Missouri and nationally may be in part due to a relatively weak recovery in the Saint Louis area. It is well understood that underlying economic conditions mostly determines total airline traffic in large cities. However, Saint Louis did see some positive economic growth in 2014, along with a large increase in employment.
Another factor that may affect STL’s ability to gain both flights and passengers is cost. STL’s cost per enplaned passenger, at almost $15, is about three times the costs at MCI or SGF. Higher costs can mean fewer or more expensive flight options, dampening demand. STL’s elevated prices mainly stem from massive debt taken on to build a new runway in the early 2000s, planned when the airport was still a TWA hub.
STL’s leadership, unlike those at another Missouri airport, see the airport’s high costs as a major hurdle toward increasing traffic and are taking aggressive steps to bring in more revenue and rein in costs. This includes leasing out unused land to local businesses and attempting to attract more national and international cargo shipments.
Whether or not these strategies will succeed is as yet unknown. But perhaps the lesson from STL’s experience for all Missouri’s cities is that if their airport provides what it needs at a low price, it will be in the best position to contribute to, and benefit from, better economic growth.