If You Build It, They May Fly Elsewhere

High-dollar airport expansion rolls on despite fewer flights, loss of TWA

The bulldozers are rolling, even if the figures don't add up.

As part of Lambert Field's ongoing expansion, 1,925 houses are being bought and demolished to prepare for more than 51,000 takeoffs and landings that won't happen this year, next year or the year after. The $1.1 billion W-1W runway project is being pursued despite an overall decline in flight operations and fewer flight delays. And that slide is expected to continue, because this town's own bankrupt airline, TWA, has been swallowed up by Texas-based American Airlines.

But hey, don't worry. Airport planners knew this all along.

American's primary hubs are in Dallas and Chicago, making St. Louis more of a third wheel than a hub.
Jennifer Silverberg
American's primary hubs are in Dallas and Chicago, making St. Louis more of a third wheel than a hub.

They must not have believed their own projections, because on the fiscal side, they prepared to pay for the expansion even if the airport operated at 55 percent of its current capacity. Talking to people who do this for a living, Short Cuts has learned this is how such deals are done. If these people were as bad at flying as they are at making projections, Amtrak would have a great future.

First, underestimate the airport's capacity. Then overestimate the need to expand for the future. Finally, plan to pay for that fictitious growth by increasing fees for consumers on traffic projected to be significantly below current levels. Makes perfect sense. Wonder whether the finance minister of Argentina has heard of this approach.

Underestimating Lambert's capacity was easy.

In 1995, the airport handled 519,156 takeoffs and landings. Last year, Lambert handled 34,000 fewer takeoffs and landings, down to 484,224. That was up slightly from 481,025 in 2000, but it's been an overall steady decline since '95. In '97, Lambert was sixth highest among major airports for flight delays, with 3.04 percent of flights stymied for an average of 43 minutes each. In 2000, Lambert ranked 15th, with 1.82 percent of flights delayed for an average of 58 minutes. In the last five years, Lambert has had fewer flights, fewer delays.

The lying-about-the-future part started early and was repeated often.

When the airport-expansion campaign was in full swing in 1991, a study projected 541,000 flight operations in 2000, a full 60,000 takeoffs and landings more than actually happened. More recent projections were even nuttier. In 1994, a Leigh Fisher Associates study predicted 530,900 operations in 2002, a full 51,953 more than occurred in 2001. That ain't gonna happen.

"A lot of those projections are done by consulting firms that are in the business of telling people what they want to hear," says Michael Boyd, an aviation analyst with the Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo. That, or the consultants rely on simplistic projections from the Federal Aviation Administration.

"The FAA is totally incompetent when it comes to forecasting," says Boyd.

Those forecasts are used by civic types to paint a dark picture of the future of air travel unless drastic things are done. In the case of the W-1W expansion, that meant planning to buy 2,005 parcels of land and pave a 9,000-foot runway. This is a controversial project, opposed not only by residents of Bridgeton whose homes are being paved over but by local air traffic controllers and the TWA pilots' union.

That opposition was agile and hostile long before Sept. 11 worsened the already dim prospects of the airline industry. Other, less terroristic developments undercut the rationale for the new runway. American bought TWA in April, with the sale final in December. St. Louis was TWA's home and its major hub. American's primary hubs are in Dallas and Chicago, making St. Louis more of a third wheel than a hub.

Although the exponential trauma of airborne terrorist attacks and economic recession has slapped a hold on expansion plans elsewhere, Lambert officials are shrugging off the unmistakable signs of an airline industry in deep trouble and are moving forward.

Some say this stubbornness will ultimately result in far fewer flights in and out of Lambert.

Tom Brown, retired TWA pilot and former head of the TWA pilots' union, suspects that American has been polite thus far about Lambert's expansion but will squirm if the cost of paying off W-1W puts a crimp in the company's St. Louis margins. Airport expansions are generally paid off through a mix of bonds, user fees related to landings and a per-passenger levy called a passenger facility charge, but American might dodge these levies by flying fewer planes through here.

"When it comes down to paying the bills, they're going to look at it and say, 'What am I getting in return?' When the answer is 'Not a hell of a lot,' I think you're going to find American Airlines just isn't going to pay," says Brown, who was ousted as head of the union when his opposition to W-1W became too vocal ["Short Cuts," Nov. 24, 1999]. "American is just brutal. They're the last of the true capitalists."

The party line at Lambert is that despite the decrease in takeoffs and landings in recent years, passenger totals continue to increase as a result of larger, more crowded planes. The 30.5 million passengers in 2000 was a slight increase over the 30.1 million in 1999. So collections based on the number of passengers may rise, but the number of planes on the runways -- what produces actual delays and congestion -- is going down.

Of course, people complain about airports all the time, so folks who've had to sit on the tarmac waiting for a plane to take off or reach a gate may doubt the statistics. But they're real. It's just that Lambert's W-1W expansion is a gigantic capital-works project that could not have been sold to the public and regulators if promoters had said fewer planes are using the airport and that delays are improving.

A billion-dollar project is all about jobs, money changing hands and image.

Truth is an early casualty.

 
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