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.

Dec 16, 1998 at 4:00 am
Driving east on Interstate 64 from downtown St. Louis, there's a sudden drop in traffic just past the empty factories and stockyards bordering East St. Louis. Beyond that lie the horseradish fields of Collinsville and the weathered river bluffs of Fairview Heights. From that point on, all the way to Scott Air Force Base, all you see are a few distant churches, some fencing, and silos and cornfields as far as you care to look.

And then you see it. From the highway at night, it looks like something big, like a shopping mall or a sports arena or a modern museum at the height of architectural fashion. Surrounded by regiments of small, blinking lights, the two-story, glassed-in structure stands off in the rural Illinois darkness like an apocalyptic religious temple just waiting for something to happen.

Whatever it is, it looks closed. The parking lot is empty, the inside lights dim. No shoppers, no sports fans, no one inside, outside or anywhere around -- just the building, the parking lot and the small blinking lights. And as your car speeds by, you notice the modestly lit sign: "MidAmerica Airport."

MidAmerica Airport, built for $300 million on the fertile cornfields of Mascoutah last year, then sarcastically labeled "Mascoutah International" by a local newspaper, because it has attracted no commercial tenants.

MidAmerica Airport, constructed as a "reliever" for St. Louis Lambert International but labeled a waste of taxpayer money by St. Louis television reporters, because Bi-State buses arrive empty and leave empty a dozen scheduled times every day.

MidAmerica Airport, the butt of an NBC "Fleecing of America" segment some time back in which Tom Brokaw asked, "Where are the airplanes?" and then goaded his taxpaying audience into believing they'd been defrauded of millions of dollars. Local residents still recall that one with a mixture of embarrassment and pride -- their three-minute claim to national fame, MidAmerica Airport.

It's easy on the surface for folks in St. Clair County to assume the airport is classic pork that provided lucrative headlines for the politicians who created it and patronage jobs for their pals. After all, one of the earliest proponents of expanding Scott Air Force Base to include civilian use came back in 1985 from former U.S. Congressman Kenneth Gray (D-New Frankfort), dubbed the "Prince of Pork" for the billions in questionable public-works projects he brought to his Southern Illinois district.

And, at least from the highway, it looks that way. There are no commercial airplanes on the runways, no cars in the parking lot and no Ramada Inn shuttles fighting taxis for a stand.

Letters to the editor of the county's largest daily newspaper, the Belleville News-Democrat, attest to increasing skepticism on the part of local residents: "How stupid do our local airport managers think the local taxpayers are?" asks one writer.

But the story of MidAmerica Airport, at least the one behind all the soundbites of cynicism, is the story of a victim, not a white elephant. MidAmerica was a well-conceived, well-planned, common-sense airport, designed to feed off the Air Force base's needs and, at the same time, provide a commercial reliever airport to landlocked Lambert.

But things went awry when, several years into MidAmerica's construction, its civilian use got hijacked by Lambert. Backed by powerful political interests, Lambert pushed ahead with its $2.6 billion expansion plan, which included no need for a second airport. The Lambert lobby was strong enough that the same agency that chipped in $154 million for MidAmerica to relieve Lambert's congestion -- the Federal Aviation Administration -- turned around and stated in its approval of Lambert's expansion that a second airport was not a viable alternative.

With the agency's approval of that plan last month, MidAmerica became Lambert's casualty.

MidAmerica's passenger terminal rises up on its 4,400-acre empty bed of land like an enigma in quarantine. But inside, the airport's director, Floyd "Rick" Hargrove, surveys the stage -- the empty terminal and the runways and parking lots outside -- as though making last-minute checks before opening night.

Hargrove, who spent 30 years in the U.S. Air Force as a cargo pilot and retired as a brigadier general, later worked as the deputy director at Lambert from 1989-94. Now, as MidAmerica's narrator, Hargrove weaves his airport's story with the jargon of a technical manual, quoting every tonnage, weight limit and square-foot capacity his audience cares to ask about.

The airport's 10,000-foot runway, for instance, is 4 feet thick, layered with 2 feet of compacted gravel, 7 inches of asphalt and 17 inches of reinforced concrete. It was designed to hold a 1.2-million pound aircraft, he explains, even though the largest carrier in existence today is the Boeing 747-400, which weighs precisely 877,000 pounds.

But this is an airport with an eye to the future, he adds, pointing out that Boeing's 747-600X, now in production, will weigh in at 1.2 million pounds or more. "There's enough concrete here to pave a 4-foot-wide bike trail, 6 inches thick, from Illinois all the way to California," he says.

Later, he notes that in constructing the entire complex -- including the passenger terminal (50,000 square feet, able to handle 400,000 passengers a year), the fuel farm (eight 30,000-gallon tanks and one 15,000-gallon tank) and the public-safety building (housing two fire trucks that hold 3,000 gallons of firefighting foam and cost $500,000 apiece) -- enough dirt was moved to fill both the Pentagon and the Trans World Dome completely.

Inside the two-story passenger terminal, which still has a new-car smell, Hargrove's words careen off the wide-open, glassed-in emptiness as though searching for a bigger audience. "This will be the ticket counter," he says, indicating dozens of capped electrical and telephone outlets behind a long, sleek shelf. "Everything is ready to go." The remainder of the first floor houses an automatic-teller machine, an Enterprise Rent-A-Car counter, two baggage carousels and a room being readied for international customs. Except for a work crew, there are no workers on the entire floor.

On the second floor, where there are two 1,200-square-foot holding areas that can seat enough passengers to fill a 747, Hargrove points toward the expansive runway complex, with its component fuel trucks, power carts and jet-engine start machines. "Because this is a brand-new airport," he says, "if someone wants to come in here, we provide everything. It's all ready to go, and everything is brand-new."

Hargrove then explains that MidAmerica's runway connects with Scott Air Force Base's parallel 7,000-foot runway, almost a mile away. Between them, and directing both shows, is a 217-foot-tall, state-of-the-art control tower manned by Air Force personnel. MidAmerica was conceived as a "joint use" facility -- to be used both by the military and commercial airlines -- and the control tower is designed to allow simultaneous takeoffs and landings under all weather conditions. Once enough commercial aircraft come in, he says, tower control will revert to the FAA.

He turns from the windows back to the waiting area, where a television broadcasts CNN's coverage of the impeachment hearings to 400 empty seats. "We'll eventually have a restaurant and a gift shop up here," he says, then smiles. "But we'll probably start with vending machines."

Past the passenger terminal to the west is where Hargrove thinks the near future of MidAmerica lies -- the cargo area. The cargo ramp itself is 400 feet by 600 feet, and although no cargo building has been constructed yet, dirt is piled in a long, low mound alongside the ramp area to compact the subsoil beneath. "That way it's all ready to lay a foundation as soon as someone decides to locate here," Hargrove says.

Farther west is the public-safety building. Its occupants -- three officers trained in firefighting, security and emergency medical technology -- make up for what the passenger terminal lacks in terms of human activity. The three officers on duty today, Capt. Willie Bender and Officers Matt Reinhardt and Chuck Schaeffer, explain that they work 24 hours on, 48 hours off, for a total of about 56 hours each week. Inside the building are eight bedrooms, a first-aid area, a small weight room, showers, two laundry areas (one for regular use and one for use on clothing contaminated with hazardous materials) and the kitchen. A crock of vegetable soup sits simmering on the stove.

The heart of the public-safety building -- of the entire airport, in some respects -- is the operations center, a small room across the hall from the kitchen, where the officers watch the terminal, the runway, the grounds and the gates on a dozen monitors, 24 hours a day. Later, when asked whether watching an empty airport isn't a bit numbing, Bender laughs and replies that there's more to the job than just that. "Besides, while it seems quiet now, five years from now you won't recognize this place," he says. "Believe me."

Everything, it seems, is in readiness. Inside the maintenance facility stand three 17-foot snowplows called "Snow Eliminators," vacuum trucks to sweep the runways and 10,000 pounds of potassium acetate, which, when mixed with sand, keeps the concrete usable even at a temperature of 10 degrees. Outside, there are even small boats. Hargrove explains that these are required by the FAA for rescue purposes should there ever be a crash in nearby Silver Creek.

But the ultimate challenge for Hargrove now is getting customers. He bases his attempts on foresight.

"There's a 7-acre slab of concrete all ready to go for cargo, and any facilities they want can be, will be, built to their specifications," he says. "There are now four gates, two with jet bridges and two commuter walk-ons, but the airport was designed to expand to 85 (gates). It's all ready to go as needed. The personnel is here; the tower is operating; there are fire trucks and snowplows and the equipment for concrete repair. An airline can come in here and start operating immediately.

"And MetroLink is scheduled to expand here eventually," he continues. "It will run along I-64, and there will be an elevated walkway from the stop to the terminal. It will then mean two major airports (Lambert and MidAmerica) are directly connected by light rail, and there's no other place in the world that I know of with that."

He pauses and stares out from the terminal to the vast expanse of space all around as though imagining the possibilities. "And parking here is free."

It's forgotten history now, but there was a reason all this came into being.
Years ago, federal and state transportation experts assured St. Clair County that air-traffic needs in the St. Louis region would skyrocket way beyond landlocked Lambert's ability to handle them. Constructing a smaller airport to siphon off the excess traffic, they said, would be a prudent economic move.

Lambert, a 1988 feasibility report stated, "is rapidly reaching saturation," and "there is insufficient capacity at Lambert to meet (FAA) forecast demand."

The study, sponsored by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), stated that operating MidAmerica in joint use with Scott Air Force Base would be an economic boon and that it would increase state and county taxes by $40.9 million a year and reduce unemployment expenditures by $34 million through 2005.

But most important, the study predicted that 2.8 million passengers would be flying in and out of MidAmerica by 2005.

"Potential traffic in the St. Louis region is projected to exceed Lambert's physical capacity by 1990," the study concluded. "Therefore, long-term growth in passenger traffic in the St. Louis area is predicated on the development of a supplemental capacity to meet the demand. If the demand is not met, air carrier growth rates will be constrained and will fall below the national average. Air cargo and small package express activity, vital to regional economic growth, will be similarly impacted.

"There is sufficient potential civil air traffic demand to justify civil use of Scott (Air Force Base). In view of the forecast airport system capacity in the St. Louis region, Scott has the potential of contributing significantly to the future economic growth of the entire region."

In fact, the IDOT report warned that unless a reliever facility for Lambert was built, Lambert itself could lose money and jobs to airports in Kansas City, Chicago, Memphis and Nashville.

From the outset, St. Clair County officials insisted that the joint-use facility at Scott would not replace or compete directly with Lambert. "It's fairly unique in that it's not a replacement airport," says Jim Pennekamp, executive director of the Leadership Council of Southwestern Illinois. "It's a new airport added to the mix for St. Louis and very much needed if we're going to maintain dominance in the aviation industry within the United States.

"We're not trying to get TWA or Southwest to move over but are talking to any economic opportunities that are looking away from St. Louis because Lambert is full," he continues. "That means major airlines, competitors of TWA, but not a hub. It would be Chicago-and-back, Kansas City-and-back, the passenger traffic that does not need to interface with a hub airline. Regional transportation, the short hauls to Jefferson City or Kansas City, freight, charter and industrial situations."

But when IDOT released its study predicting MidAmerica could make an economic go of it, Missouri lawmakers immediately launched their attack.

"There is no way we can let this get away to Illinois," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted Henry Elmendorf, former director of the Missouri-St. Louis Metropolitan Airport Authority, as saying at the time.

Elmendorf's territorial aggressiveness was soon echoed by the following elected officials:

* U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond: "I'm going to fight making a second passenger airport in the St. Louis region."

* Former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary: "They intend not only to compete but to move the passenger service from Lambert to Scott. When Chicago is willing to move O'Hare to Indiana, I'll support moving Lambert to Illinois."

* Former Gov. John Ashcroft: "I have no interest in promoting Scott Air Force Base."

The fight instigated by the IDOT study itself rekindled old fires over the successful derailment of a major airport project in Columbia, Ill., by St. Louis opponents only one decade before. "This is an issue with a lot of political arms and legs," one source says. "Look at what happened with the Columbia-Waterloo project. Look at what happened when MidAmerica was first proposed. There's no way the St. Louis business sector is going to sit by and watch it (MidAmerica) grow."

The FAA apparently had such high hopes for the project that it agreed to pitch in $154 million through its Military Airport Program (MAP), a grant set-aside of the Airport Improvement Program, which was created in part at the urging of U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Belleville), chair of the House aviation subcommittee. According to the FAA, 15 former or current military airports such as Scott now receive MAP funds on the basis of their ability to "reduce delays at an existing nearby commercial service airport that has more than 20,000 hours of annual delays in commercial passenger aircraft takeoffs and landings."

Believing predictions that the new airport would create thousands of jobs and billions in economic development for the area -- dubbed "one of the most significant developments in southwestern Illinois history" by then-Gov. Jim Edgar -- the state of Illinois and St. Clair County pitched in about $60 million and $30 million, respectively. The Air Force also committed $67 million.

Meanwhile, the German-American citizenry of St. Clair County, more inclined to save for the future than speculate in it, watched their tax dollars take local farms through the force of eminent domain in order to make room for a future noisy airport few of them wanted in the first place.

By 1996 -- two years before the airport's scheduled opening -- St. Clair County officials (many of whom by that time were inheritors rather than progenitors of the project) had been unsuccessful in attracting any commercial airlines. The reasons were varied, but the county's inability to disclose any specifics about potential tenant negotiations only increased the mounting public pressure to justify the airport's existence.

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."

So last month the FAA approved the $2.6 billion Lambert expansion plan, which includes a major terminal expansion as well. Meanwhile, just 20 minutes from downtown, MidAmerica stands empty and basically ignored.

Griggs said commercial airlines will not support two airports in the same geographic region: "You cannot give me one example where they do."

On the other hand, MidAmerica was never conceived to get a TWA to split its operations between both airports. The idea, as the FAA itself maintained, was to have MidAmerica attract other, nonhub airlines when Lambert got too congested.

But the FAA, lobbied heavily by the St. Louis delegation of politicians and business interests -- from Congressman Richard "Dick" Gephardt and former Sen. John Danforth to Civic Progress and the Regional Commerce and Growth Association (RCGA) -- approved the expansion even though it meant reduced traffic or no traffic for MidAmerica.

In its official "record of decision" issued for the Lambert expansion plan last month, the FAA dismisses any role for MidAmerica as a second commercial airport for the St. Louis metro area. "Use of multiple airports would complicate the hubbing issue," the document says. More important, the FAA says that a "threshold of 10 to 12 million originating passengers is needed for a community to support a second commercial service airport"; projections say that even by 2015, the St. Louis area will have only 8.7 million such passengers.

Perhaps complicating the FAA's dual pronouncements on whether the St. Louis area needs a second airport is the fact that the federal agency is broken into different regions -- Lambert comes under its "central region," based in Kansas City, whereas MidAmerica Airport falls under the "Great Lakes region" out of Chicago. Don Zockert, the spokesman out of Chicago, was helpful to us in confirming the FAA funding for MidAmerica but said he had no knowledge about the statements cited above in the Lambert decision. He referred us to an FAA spokeswoman in Atlanta, whom we were unable to reach by press time.

If MidAmerica operated in a vacuum, the foresight involved in that project would be applauded. But MidAmerica operates in St. Clair County, historically treated as the economic stepchild of the St. Louis metropolitan region. And it seems as if MidAmerica's potential as a world-class air facility spooks some of Missouri's influential business sector -- and with good reason.

Consider that St. Clair County's airport is easily expandible, sitting on more than 4,000 empty acres, with the nearest towns of Mascoutah, Shiloh and Lebanon several miles away. MidAmerica's terminal has the capacity to expand to 85 gates, and from downtown St. Louis, it's about three miles farther than Lambert, on less congested highways.

On the other hand, Lambert's 1,980 acres are encased by densely populated residential areas. Just to complete W-1W, the FAA had to approve a whole host of logistical nightmares, including the destruction of 1,972 homes, 75 businesses, six churches, four schools and the restructuring of several major streets in Bridgeton.

"Of course Lambert is worried," says one source. "When you compare the investment of MidAmerica Airport with what it's going to cost to expand Lambert and the ongoing challenges that will follow, of course MidAmerica is the airport."

Between St. Louis and Mascoutah are about 31 towns in Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties, which make up the 1,777-square-mile "Metro East." From towns such as Belleville and Shiloh to the south and Granite City and Edwardsville to the north, 67,268 people (who generally consider themselves residents of the St. Louis area more than they do of Illinois itself) make the drive across the river every day for work.

The relationship between St. Louis and St. Clair County, which makes up the southern half of the Metro East, is much like that between St. Louis and St. Charles County. Because civic organizations such as the RCGA in St. Louis fiercely defend and promote the idea of "regionalism" -- as in the case of the Page Avenue extension between St. Louis and St. Charles counties -- it's not surprising that residents of St. Clair County consider themselves, and their airport, an official member of the regional club.

But one year after MidAmerica's opening, Missouri and St. Louis officials celebrated the FAA's approval of Lambert's W-1W expansion plan. To many the expansion made no sense given the cost, the number of homes and businesses that would have to be razed in St. Louis County and the fact that a viable alternative sat empty only 20 minutes to the east.

In addition, the Air Line Pilots Association claimed Lambert's planned runway will decrease safety and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said it would decrease efficiency.

Missouri officials, though, were adamant. "We had to make a decision for the good of the whole region," Gephardt said at the time.

St. Clair County officials were extremely polite by not pointing out that St. Clair County, with its own desperately empty airport, is usually considered part of the "whole region." Instead, they continue to emphasize that MidAmerica poses no threat to Lambert.

"MidAmerica Airport was built to add aviation capacity to the region, not to compete with Lambert," says John Baricevic, St. Clair County Board chairman. "Besides, the expansion of Lambert is absolutely good for the St. Louis region, including St. Clair County. If I just look at MidAmerica Airport, yes, it might delay some business opportunities coming our way, but we need to keep the region strong, and to do that we need more runways. One day, we'll need even more."

Other Illinois lawmakers, such as Costello, took heat from campaign opponents in last month's election for supporting Lambert's growth. "He believes that MidAmerica's function is to be a reliever and not a competitor to Lambert," says Costello spokesman Brian Lott. "He approves of the concept of expanding Lambert, because he generally believes that in order for the region to be competitive in the 21st century, you need a first-class international airport. If you look at every other major metropolitan area in the country from Los Angeles to New York to Seattle to Denver, they all have airports that will accommodate increased ridership of the 21st century."

Then there are those, like Illinois state Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Edwardsville), who reissue the proclamation of "regionalism" but stop short of fully endorsing Lambert's expansion. "From a regional standpoint, I think it's unfortunate that we didn't first look to MidAmerica Airport to accommodate some of the expansion that's necessary to attract air traffic to the area," Hoffman, chair of the House transportation committee, says. "But the decision was made, and we have to move forward with that decision."

But as one source familiar with both Lambert and Mid-America points out, when the business interests of Lambert are threatened, even minimally by a facility like MidAmerica, "regionalism" becomes a word that few people seem to remember.

"They've got the ability to make both airports successful and take care of the current customer complaints about congestion at Lambert," says the source. "If you expand Lambert, you're going to have natural congestion and pressures as the airline industry grows. Why not move some of those things to MidAmerica? That makes the Lambert expansion easier, and then perhaps it would generate some new business in the area -- to think regionally, in other words, and think about it very seriously.

"But nobody is doing that, I think, because the St. Louis business community feels threatened by MidAmerica, that maybe it will take away business. But you're cramming Lambert, you're keeping it crammed, it's still the way it's always been, and I think it's shortsighted."

Says another: "I think a lot of people, frankly, in Missouri think, 'That's a nice little airport -- go ahead and build your runway, but we've got the big kahuna over here in St. Louis, so get lost.'"

Attempts to reach RCGA officials for this story were unsuccessful.
As for Griggs, who during his tenure at the FAA oversaw and approved the federal funding for MidAmerica, he envisions the Illinois airport taking in some cargo business, because Lambert can't accept any more. As for any commercial passenger business, well, listen for yourself:

"We are the center of population where Lambert is," Griggs said. "Lambert is destined to serve as a commercial airport for this area. Scott will be a reliever. Having said that, you build airports where people will come to them. This is not a field of dreams."

Were Lambert not expanding, MidAmerica could say the same.

D.J. Wilson contributed information to this story.