|By Carmelo Turdo|
Ms Hamm-Niebruegge has been the airport director since January of 2010, inheriting a facility in very difficult circumstances. In the 1980s, both Ozark Airlines, the regional airline, and TWA the major trunk air carrier, contributed the great majority of the flights. During this time, 70% of the flights were connecting flights with low-yield tickets, and 78% of the traffic came from TWA. This made the airport vulnerable to the loss of either airline. By 2003 both airlines were absorbed into American Airlines, which would shortly thereafter abandon St. Louis as a hub in its operations. In the decade since, and after a major expansion and additional debt, the airport has turned the corner and shows signs of becoming an economically viable enterprise again, in part due to the leadership of former director Richard Hrabko and now Ms Hamm-Niebruegge.
Currently, operations at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport are very different from the past. Though the airport is the 30th busiest in the U.S., down from 7th busiest in 2000, the mix of airlines and destinations has changed for the better in recent years. Southwest Airlines now provides 45% of the traffic, and 85% of the nearly 250 average total daily departures to 62 non-stop destinations are locally-generated, high-yield tickets. More airlines are using the airport, and soon Alaska Airlines will have daily departures to the Great Northwest. Lessons learned from past experience have contributed to improved operational plans, and the airport has become a stronger enterprise in just the last several years.
Perhaps the strongest example of the leadership team's ability under Ms Hamm-Niebruegge was the response to the tornado damage to the main terminal, already in the midst of a $90 million renovation. The additional $50 million in damage, nearly all covered by insurance, created a crisis situation. There were no fatalities and only a hand full of injuries, mostly due to advanced warning and quick reaction by airport staff. Miraculously, the airport reopened within 24 hours and was soon back to nearly full capacity. The airport won the TSA Airport of the Year in 2011 for its ability to secure the airport grounds and resume operations so quickly. "It was a redefining moment," said Ms Hamm-Niebruegge, describing how the community and contractors came together to bring the airport back to operation.
Still, there is more work to be done. Attracting more airlines is still a priority, and increasing the number of cargo customers is also very important. Currently, the airport receives only 2% of its revenue from cargo operations, wherein it should be at the 50% mark to insure against volatility in the passenger airline market. Landing fees are still higher than average due to the high debt to expense ratio. 25% of traffic comes from regional jets, which with their lower landing weight generate lower revenues. The airport still has not secured regular flights using larger cargo aircraft, which generate higher revenues. Ms Hamm-Niebruegge and her leadership staff are working very hard to address these issues, and if they are half as successful as they were handling the challenges over the last few years, the future will look brighter for Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.