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With bills coming due at Lambert, St. Louis considers drastic change

In announcing its decision to keep Lambert's credit rating unchanged, Moody's in October said the airport would remain economically viable for airlines. At the same time, Fitch Ratings downgraded Lambert's rating from A- to BBB+, still considered investment grade.

John Farrell, spokesman for city comptroller Darlene Green, said he didn't know whether his boss agrees with Moody's assessment that the pre-task force financial plan for the airport would be economically viable for airlines. Green, through Farrell, said she favors keeping per-passenger costs as low as possible to keep the airport competitive, but the spokesman would not elaborate, refusing to say whether Green favors the rate proposed by the task force or the higher rate that would require airlines to bear the full cost of runway debt service. The comptroller, in a written response to written questions, also said completing the runway is the primary goal and airport ownership questions are secondary.

But Shrewsbury says there's more to this than simply meeting debt service. Without improvements for passengers and low costs for airlines, Lambert won't grow, he predicts, and the city's image and business prospects will suffer.

"The airport is almost like the taxi driver -- that's your first impression when you come to St. Louis," Shrewsbury says. "Someone who comes to St. Louis and sees a dingy airport with shops closed and ceiling tiles falling off, and rugs and carpeting that's torn and uprooted, they're going to have a bad impression of St. Louis city. Somebody coming to do business and thinking about doing more business in St. Louis very well may judge this city and may judge this metropolitan area based on their experience at the airport."

Darryl Jenkins, a director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says it will take more than low passenger fees to restore flights at Lambert. "The problem is, the St. Louis economy is not doing very well," Jenkins said. "If you're going to bring back traffic to Lambert, you do that through improving the economic conditions in St. Louis."

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