Terminal Illness

Twenty minutes from downtown, the $300 million MidAmerica Airport is ready and waiting for business -- any business. Trouble is, Lambert is killing its chances of attracting commercial traffic.

Pennekamp explains that the county's attempts to market MidAmerica were actually successful to a certain extent, but because of the nature of business negotiations, specifics couldn't be released to the public at the time. And they still can't. "They have been in ongoing conversations with some major carriers, and there has been some interest expressed," Pennekamp says. "One of the problems that you run into is that these conversations need to be kept confidential, for obvious reasons."

As for why the talks didn't produce any tenants, Pennekamp says it was probably better that they didn't, in light of what they were asking.

"I've been aware of various regional carriers who have approached MidAmerica who have wanted to operate there but have also wanted things like major incentives," Pennekamp says. "Those incentives bordered on investments in those regional carriers, actual investments in the company. And I'll leave it at that. But St. Clair (County) is confident enough -- and I support this -- in its ability to attract a substantial carrier that it does not want to begin accommodating a bunch of regional, smaller carriers that may not be appropriate for the capabilities at MidAmerica Airport."

Other ventures were equally unfruitful for MidAmerica, including being dropped for consideration by DHL Worldwide Express last year and failed plans by Boeing, which, after its merger with McDonnell Douglas, was said to be looking for a new aviation facility at which to build its next generation of planes.

The search for a use for the airport turned a bit bizarre at times. At one point, airport officials applied for FAA certification to use MidAmerica as a "spaceport," should commercial space travel ever become a reality. There was also optimistic talk that MidAmerica might be considered as a launching site for any X Prize flight that might take off sometime in the future. (The X Prize Foundation announced last year that it would award $10 million to any individual or company that built a spacecraft able to take people into space more than once.)

But despite MidAmerica's quest for as much traffic as the air industry cared to send its way, Lambert International began seriously planning for its own expansion in 1993, when Col. Leonard Griggs returned to Lambert as director after a five-year stint with the FAA.

In a recent interview, Griggs defended Lambert's expansion and its addition of a third runway -- called W-1W -- as justified, given that Lambert is crucial to the economic health of the entire St. Louis region. Without the expansion, he claimed, increased traffic would only compound already agonizing delays. "What's the first thing a pilot says when the weather is bad in St. Louis? 'We can't land at Lambert because they're down to one runway,'" Griggs said. "That's the biggest single stymieing factor we have in terms of growth."

According to Griggs, some 514,000 flights arrive or take off from Lambert each year, with an average eight-minute delay per aircraft. In projecting what delays might be if there were no expansion at Lambert, Leigh Fisher Associates was hired to conduct a study on Lambert's future needs. The study concluded that by the year 2015, increased growth would result in an average delay of 32 minutes. The consultants claimed that such anticipated delays would cost $300 million.

Those delay and cost estimates are based on a "standard definition of delay" used by the consultants, which is the difference in operating time between how long it takes an aircraft to land and take off and how long it would take if it were the only aircraft in the system. In other words, the delay statistics have far less to do with passengers leaving or arriving late than with shaving a few minutes off planes waiting to take off once on the runway, or circling a few times before landing. The reduction in that type of measured delay centers on saving money on fuel, wages and maintenance for the airlines, not necessarily saving time for the passengers.

Whatever numbers are used, Griggs said there are two ways to look at the need for a new runway. One, the new concrete appendage will reduce delays by about five minutes if traffic patterns remain as they are today. But under the second scenario, Lambert could increase its operations by almost 200,000 flights per year and still only experience the current eight-minute delays. Either way, the expansion benefits someone.

And, echoing the business-lobby chorus, Griggs made the argument about Lambert's importance to the area's economic health. "This airport serves over 2.5 million people," he said. "This airport is responsible for over $5 billion to the economy of this area. If we can pull off W-1W, this airport will, conservatively, be worth $12.5-$15 billion to the economy by the year 2015, and the economy of this airport drives the economy of this area."

Pressure from regional business interests also fueled Lambert's push to expand, Griggs said.

"How important is this?" he asked. "When the decision was made by MasterCard to expand to larger facilities and they were looking to St. Charles and all across the St. Louis region, the first question they asked was 'Are you going to do something to fix the gridlock at Lambert?' After they received assurances that Lambert was going to be expanded, this was really part of the calculus of their equation in deciding to stay in St. Louis."

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