St. Louis Lambert International Airport – Beyond a Travel Hub

St. Louis Lambert International Airport’s history goes back to the very dawn of powered flight, but it has an exciting future ahead of it.

St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL) takes its name from Albert Bond Lambert, a prominent aviator, hot-air balloonist and early aviation benefactor who used to take off from the site where the airport sits today. It is also the airport where aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh worked as a flight instructor and served as the chief pilot for an important US mail service.

For almost as long as the flight has been within people’s grasp, STL has played a key role in enabling that flight.

Today, it is the 31st largest airport in the US, in 2019 serving 16 million passengers. The site covers 3,675 acres of land, nearly 2,000 of which are inside the airport’s perimeter fence, home to the airport’s runway system and terminal, with another 1,600 beyond that, which development plans are underway for future opportunities.

“Our current largest carrier is Southwest Airlines; it garners 59% of the market share from STL. And our most recent announcement is that Lufthansa will start non-stop service to Frankfurt in June 2022” points out Airport Director, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge. “One of our most valuable traits is that we sit right in the centre of the US, literally. When you think about the flow of flight activity from STL, getting anywhere in the country to the north, south, east or west is within an easy reach. Our furthest point is 3.5 hours to the far north-western coast of the country.”

A Time for Transformation

By the latter half of the 20th century, STL was a significant large hub for Trans World Airlines across the late 80s and into the 90s. However, when Trans World was bought by American Airlines in 2001, St Louis Lambert International Airport would find itself dehubbed over the following six or seven years. By 2009 it was clear the airport needed a transformation. Fortunately, Hamm-Niebruegge was ideally positioned to be a catalyst for this change.

“I was with TWA, mostly based at STL, for many years and ultimately ran all of TWA’s North American operations,” she recalls. “When I moved over to American Airlines after the merger my role was to support and integrate all the TWA airports into the American Airlines network. Shortly thereafter I came back to running the St Louis operation for American Airlines and ultimately went through the arduous task of dehubbing it. I had the great opportunity to transition my career to the airport when Mayor Francis Slay appointed me in January 2010 as the Airport Director for STL and we’ve seen some amazing transformations.”

“I’ve now been here 12 years, so I’m on my third mayor!” she jokes. In the 70s and 80s, with so many different legacy carriers, a lot of medium-sized cities became hubs for these carriers. However, with the changes that came to the aviation industry and the consolidation of carriers things started to change in the ’90s and STL was really the first airport in the US that went through a dehubbing exercise. As airline consolidation took place, from approximately ten major carriers to three, it was a shock to the industry. After STL lost its hub status, the industry began to see this trend expand and numerous markets followed suit shortly thereafter.”

As the first major airport to meet this fate, STL had an opportunity to lead the way in its transformation, showing other airports how to build back.

“We’ve done a fantastic job of reinventing ourselves. We’ve stood out as a leader in trying to recover from a devastating blow,” Hamm-Niebruegge recalls.

The team’s resilience was demonstrated aptly when the airport was hit by another disaster.

“In 2011, on Good Friday, we were hit by an F4 Tornado, which saw national coverage that weekend. The tornado struck at 8:10 p.m. and took out an entire concourse, as well as the windows at our historic front facade,” Hamm-Niebruegge says. “It was devastating, but we reopened the airport the next day. It stood out in the industry as an example of the strength of our team and the partnerships we have to pull together for this critical asset. Since then, our financial strength, our recent growth and that ability to recover are where we stand out.”

The Right Stuff

Hamm-Niebruegge puts that astonishing achievement down to the strong team STL is led by.

“I’m blessed with a great staff and together we transformed this airport from a really negative state financially and operationally to where we are today,” she points out. “By 2019 the transformation was highly recognized, and aside from COVID, we are on a great trajectory as we look to the future.”

The airport’s leadership team consists of three deputy directors that report to Hamm-Niebruegge, one with responsibilities in planning and engineering, one in operations and maintenance and a CFO who handles the finances, leases and the business diversity office of the airport. Together they have become a closely-knit team, committed to the airport.

“Between the four of us, the strength that everyone brings to the team is incredible,” Hamm-Niebruegge says. “All of them could go to a number of locations and move into higher roles, but we have really bonded together to rebuild this airport and make this community proud of STL. Being a part of that is exciting and I know this team can do great things.”

A Transformed Airport

From the beginning, the role of Hamm-Niebruegge and her team was to rebuild the former hub into an airport suitable for the 21st century, and one of the critical advantages the airport had was the partnerships it was able to build.

“That’s been my role. I have a great team with expertise in planning, operations and finance. What I bring to the table is building the trust of the community and growing our partnerships and really educating on the role we play in the regional economy,” Hamm-Niebruegge explains. “The airport has morphed itself into something we can all be proud of and it will continue to morph, so bringing the community along for that ride has been fun. We had to find partnerships that worked. We asked the community and our airline partners what they wanted. Then our job was bringing those pieces together and putting us in the place we are today.”

European airlines have been more open to looking at medium-sized cities and putting together a regional package to show the commitment to making a European flight successful was critical. That led to our partnership with Lufthansa, and when we announced in late December the non-stop Frankfurt service it was a huge win for this airport and this region.

Building Bridges

The partnership with Lufthansa is a huge step for the airport, and the region as a whole, as it marks the first time in nearly two decades that non-stop flights to continental Europe will depart from St Louis Lambert International Airport.

The partnership will mean three non-stop flights per week flying from St Louis Lambert International Airport to Frankfurt as of June this year. Passengers have been able to choose from business, premium economy, and economy seating for the new route since tickets went on sale in December 2021.

“By working with Lufthansa and bringing our regional partners together, we are now able to connect St Louis directly to the world. This is a major step forward for our region’s critical transportation infrastructure necessary to advance the goals of the STL 2030 Jobs Plan,” said Andrew C. Taylor, Executive Chairman of Enterprise Holdings Inc. and Founding Chair of Greater St Louis, Inc.

Lufthansa has been equally excited by the deal, with Frank Naeve, Vice President of Sales, Lufthansa Group Passenger Airlines for the Americas, saying of the partnership, “Our mission is to connect people, cultures and economies, sustainably, and the launch of service from St Louis is the best example of our commitment to this mission. The United States is our most important market outside of our European home markets and we are thrilled to commence service in this vibrant market, linking it to the Frankfurt hub, as we expand our network of gateways in the United States, connecting even more markets than before the pandemic.”

The new flights are particularly important as until they were announced St Louis was the largest American market without non-stop service to Europe. There has not been a non-stop flight from St Louis to continental Europe since the TWA to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris in September 2001.

It is also significant because of the strong ties the St Louis region has with Germany, including the Seeds & Traits headquarters for the Crop Science division of Bayer, the KWS Gateway Research Center, the significant presence of MilliporeSigma, the life science business of Merck KGaA, and many others. Indeed, the new service has already proven popular with local businesses.

“Restoring non-stop international air service helps St Louis solidify our status as a truly global centre of innovation and commerce,” said Rodrigo Santos, Chief Operating Officer for Bayer Crop Science, a division of Bayer AG, headquartered in Germany. “We’re excited to more easily connect with people around the world, especially our Bayer colleagues travelling to and from Europe.”

Germany is not the only global location St Louis is building bridges to. The airport has also recently made an agreement with the airline, Spirit, to fly a direct service to Cancun, Mexico. St Louis already offers flights to several destinations into Mexico and the Caribbean, but Spirit has become the latest to announce additional service to Cancun. Last May the airline inaugurated its service from STL with four flights, and it has begun service to three more destinations since November. The latest flights will depart at 6:30 am, daily, and provide a daily return flight that arrives at 2:03 pm.

“Spirit Airlines continued growth at St Louis Lambert International is a great way to end this remarkable year,” said Hamm-Niebruegge of the new flights. “In March, the airline announced its arrival at STL, and today it flies to eight destinations. We are grateful to see Spirit’s commitment to this region.”

“We sincerely appreciate the warm welcome Spirit has received in St Louis, and we’re thrilled to continue investing in additional convenient, non-stop flights to fun destinations,” said Nick Bartolotta, Senior Director of Network Planning for Spirit Airlines.

Spirit now has several routes coming out of St Louis Lambert Airport, including Tampa, Orlando, Phoenix, Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Setting the Stage

“Now our next step is to start talking about what our facilities will look like over the next decade and how we continue to meet the needs of this community as we look to the future. Connecting traffic through STL and growing that market will be a key factor for us. We currently are just finalizing the latest Master Plan which will be our guide as we move forward,” Hamm-Niebruegge says. “This last year we’ve seen a lot of growth in our region in terms of business opportunities including tech, financial institutions, logistics, agriculture, plant sciences and others.  We are seeing things take off in this community and that will be a great asset as we look to grow our airport.”

One additional area STL has seen growth is in distribution centres throughout our region and that has enabled our growth of air cargo. We have seen dramatic increases in our cargo tonnage and we also have been approved to handle live animal shipments through the USDA. We have seen a number of these shipments in 2021 and expect more to come in 2022. “We’ve seen more interest in livestock, produce and products moving through this region and we believe that growth will continue,” Hamm-Niebruegge says.

“When we think about what’s ahead, we see a lot of potential to grow from a passenger and a cargo standpoint and as we think about the future, we believe our stage is set!”

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