I-Team: Why Lambert-St. Louis International Airport may never be a hub again

10:28 PM, Aug 19, 2010   |    comments
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By Leisa Zigman, I-Team Reporter

St. Louis, MO (KSDK) -- An I-Team analysis of costs at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport shows it has some of the highest landing fees in the nation. In fact, it costs airlines more to land in St. Louis than O'Hare in Chicago, LAX in Los Angeles, even La Guardia in New York.

The I-Team wanted to know if the sky high landing fees would hurt Lamberts chances of ever returning to a hub airport. In researching this report, we spoke to airport directors and industry analysts around the country. In the late 1990s as many as 30 million passengers flew through Lambert each year. At present, that number is down to 14 million.

Since January, Lambert has been under the leadership of new airport director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge. The Missouri native knows the airport like she knows her own family. She worked her way up from Ozark Airline ticket agent to TWA ramp supervisor, to Vice President of North American operations. She oversaw 8,000 TWA employees and ran the St. Louis hub.

"It's very difficult for a hub to work anymore with a single carrier financially," Hamm-Niebruegge said. "Do I think we'll see a single carrier hub like in 1999? Probably not. Can this traffic grow here and can we work to expand more direct service? Absolutely."

An I-Team analysis of larger and similar sized airports finds Lamberts fees are sky high. Airlines are charged $8.50 per 1,000 pounds to land at Lambert.

That is higher than La Guardia ($7.65), Chicago O'Hare ($6.77), Dallas/Ft. Worth ($4.37), Los Angeles ($4.07), Denver ($3.61), Detroit ($3.36), San Francisco ($3.15), Reagan National ($3.04), Houston ($2.95), Las Vegas ($2.26), Minneapolis/St. Paul ($2.11), Kansas City ($1.88), Phoenix ($1.62), Orlando ($1.44), Memphis ($1.40), Atlanta ($1.06) and Ft. Lauderdale ($1.05).

"We've tried very hard this past year to lower costs here," Hamm-Niebruegge said. "We know that is one of the things airlines look at. It's not the only thing they look at. It's not just about landing fees."

Industry experts agree.

"Lowering airport costs is always a good marketing tool, but run for cover when anyone says if we lower the fees we'll get a hub here," said Michael Boyd with Boyd Aviation. "Those are people who don't know what they're talking about."

The tough love truth according to Boyd and to Hamm-Niebruegge is that the past is just that, the past.

"The chances of St. Louis getting a hub if the landing fees were a tenth of what they are now, or double what they are is just the same -- zero," Boyd said.

According to Boyd, airlines aren't investing in new hubs anywhere, not just St.Louis. With a hub out of the realm of current possibility the focus turns to growing the number of nonstop flights. Landing fees will decrease .37 cents next year and there are incentives to peak more interest.

"If you commit to two years of new flight activity or a new airline, we'll freeze those landing fees for 12 months," Hamm-Niebruegge said.

Passengers we spoke to find the airport dark and depressing. They also rolled their eyes at the fact that Lambert charges for WiFi. Some said a little free service could go a long way in how they judge their experience.

In the fall, Lambert will begin its largest interior renovation in history. Using money from general revenue bonds, the airport is spending $50,000,000 to modernize and improve the facility.

"For me, it's about understanding what we can be and then trying to go a little bit beyond. Some of that has been the frustration of looking in the past and saying that is what I want it to be," Hamm-Niebrugge said. "It's going forward and looking into the future of where we can be."

Beginning September, Delta will begin four daily direct flights to New York, LaGuardia. Also in September, Alaska Air begins new direct service to Seattle.



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