Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Airport Directors and Aerospace Industry Executives Participate In Second Annual Take Flight Forum

By Carmelo Turdo
Five St. Louis area airport directors and four aerospace industry executives participated in St. Louis Regional Freightway's Second Annual Take Flight Forum held on November 8 at the Bi-State Development offices in downtown St. Louis. Throughout the program, each speaker addressed the market niche served by their airport or business and provided updates on annual operations, capital investments, workforce development and the economic impact of their facilities. 
The over-arching theme of the program was the spirit of collaboration necessary to grow the aviation services sector in the region.     

The St. Louis Regional Freightway is an enterprise of Bi-State Development founded in 2014 to promote and enhance the St. Louis region's capabilities as a multi-modal freight hub. The Take Flight Forum was an opportunity to highlight the aviation sector as an economic driver in the bi-state area, affecting not only the immediate communities but the state and nation as well. The Forum was moderated by Mary Lamie (right) Executive Vice President of Multimodal Enterprises for Bi-State Development. 

The Take Flight Forum participants testified to the aviation industry's resilience through good times and bad, and they provided practical steps toward growing the region's aviation services now and into the future. 

The airport directors took the stage first. They are (L-R):

Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, St. Louis-Lambert International Airport; Darren James, MidAmerica St. Louis Airport; John Bales, Spirit of St. Louis Airport; Sandra Shore, St. Louis Downtown Airport; and Daniel Adams, St. Louis Regional Airport.

St. Louis-Lambert international Airport is the commercial air carrier hub for the St. Louis and bi-state region, tracing its roots to the lease of land by Albert Bond Lambert in 1920. The founding of the Missouri National Guard's 110th Observation Squadron came in 1923, and St. Louis businessmen joined Lambert in financing Charles Lindbergh's solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. The municipal airport grew and became home to such legendary aircraft manufacturers as Curtiss-Wright and later McDonnell Aircraft, McDonnell Douglas and now Boeing. TWA and Ozark Airlines were the main air carriers throughout the jet age. Expansion continued to include Terminal 2 and the W-1W parallel runway project. Today St. Louis-Lambert International Airport has become a major hub for Southwest Airlines and a growing number of international flights, and construction of a consolidated terminal is in the planning stage.  

Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge has served as Airport Director since January of 2010. She brought a unique perspective to the job, having served in management roles with American Airlines, TWA and Ozark Airlines in St. Louis. Hamm-Niebruegge has overseen the airport's recovery from the economic downturn of 2008, the effects of the loss of TWA and Ozark Airlines traffic, the Covid pandemic and numerous other challenges. 

Significant development projects are on the horizon at St. Louis-Lambert International Airport, including a new, modern terminal and gate structure design and other improvements mentioned in the most recent master plan.

"The new, consolidated terminal plan would keep the historic domes of Terminal One," Hamm-Niebruegge assured the forum audience. "Those domes are known throughout the world as one of the greatest airport architectures in the industry. So the domes would stay, the lobby would get reconfigured, and then we would look at a sixty-two gate single terminal concourse. So one united checkpoint once you pass through the ticketing area, and a dual-sided concourse." The growth of Southwest Airlines connecting traffic is driving the need for more aircraft loading capacity as well as a tripling of car parking capacity in the Terminal One parking garage. $335M for enabling projects has already been allocated in preparation for the architectural design phase.

"When you're out talking to people or out talking to businesses, I don't think we compete against each other - we all actually bring a portfolio to the table that's one of the strongest in this industry," Hamm-Niebruegge said in response to a question about the role of smaller airports. "What you want in aviation you can find here when you put us all together."

MidAmerica St. Louis Airport is a joint-use airport located adjacent to Scott AFB. The airport was conceived in the early 1990s and opened in 1998. After more than a decade of intermittent passenger and cargo service, the airport has seen a stable growth in commercial airline service. Allegiant Airlines now flies to eleven destinations around the country from MidAmerica, and Boeing, the airport's largest tenant, is building a new production facility for the MQ-25 Stingray Carrier-Based Unmanned Refueling System aerial tanker.
Darren James is the new Director of MidAmerica St. Louis Airport. He previously served as Assistant Airport Director and is a retired USAF Brigadier General who most recently served as the special assistant to the Commander, Air Mobility Command, at Scott AFB.  

"We are one of twenty-one joint-use facilities throughout the nation," James said as he described the unique position that MidAmerica St. Louis Airport holds in the community. "We partner with a military facility...They have active duty, they have Air National Guard and they have Air Force Reserve missions. And we're a happy participant in their missions daily." 

MidAmerica St. Louis Airport and Scott AFB support $3.1B in economic impact and provide 23,000 jobs including those at the Boeing St. Clair production facility. It is the sixth busiest airport in Illinois and is a primary, non-hub airport with Allegiant Airlines as the local ultra low-cost carrier. In June, a 42,000 square foot terminal expansion was opened for additional TSA lanes and passenger holding areas. Two additional passenger boarding bridges were added and the concession space was recently remodeled. International travel opportunities are also planned for the future, with a new federal inspection station and parking for three additional aircraft on the apron.   

Spirit of St. Louis Airport was developed as an alternative to then Lambert-St. Louis International Airport for the business aviation sector. The project was spearheaded by aviator and aerospace engineer Paul Haglin and the airport was officially opened in 1965. Since then, the airport has become a home for corporate flight departments, starting with Ralston-Purina. Today, the airport accommodates a large number of corporate and general aviation aircraft, multiple FBOs, Wings of Hope global humanitarian aviation organization, Elite Aviation flight school, the Red Tail Cadet Program and one of the nation's biggest airshows. 
John Bales has been the Spirit of St. Louis Airport Director since 2007. He grew up in aviation as the son of an Ozark Airlines pilot, and he soloed at Spirit of St. Louis Airport on his sixteenth birthday. He has worked at all levels of airport operations management, and he currently serves on multiple boards and committees around the community.  
"Spirit is the busiest business aviation airport in the FAA Central Region," Bales noted in his opening remarks. The airport supports over 155,000 operations per year, with over 300 international arrivals as one of only five ports of entry to the U.S. in Missouri. Public and private investment projects include business and private hangar developments, runway enhancements and continuation of STEM education programs including the Spirit Airshow and STEM Expo and the Red Tail Cadet Program hosted by Elite Aviation. 

"We all have our own niche," Bales continued. "Small airports - they offer a lot too...St. Louis is an aviation Mecca."

St. Louis Downtown Airport traces its history to 1929 when it opened as Curtiss-Steinberg Airport before the long association with Oliver Parks, Parks College and later St. Louis University flight programs. During World War II, the USAAF provided basic flight training at the airport. The Parks era ended in the late 1950s, and Bi-State Development began the long-term development of what would become the current state-of-the-art facility that serves general aviation, corporate customers and charter operations. The airport's largest business is Gulfstream Aerospace, and a new Ground Engine Run-Up and Compass Calibration Pad facility has been completed. 
Sandra Shore became the St. Louis Downtown Airport Director in February of 2022 after serving as Airport Director at Quincy, IL Regional Airport. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Aviation Management from SIU-Carbondale and holds several AAAE credentials including Airport Accredited Executive. Shore sees her role as serving the region as well as the airport, focusing on workforce development and increasing the economic impact of the aviation industry in the community. 

St. Louis Downtown Airport contributes $422M of economic impact to the region and supports over 1,500 jobs. Tenant growth, especially with the expansion of the Gulfstream facility, is fueling the demand for a skilled workforce in the St. Louis-Metro Illinois area. 

"We just finished our Ground Engine Run-Up and Compass Calibration Pad facility that we talked about last year," Shore announced. "We're continuing to see record-setting numbers in our fuel sales and our operations...Business is back in St. Louis."

The airport supports the education and workforce development efforts of their tenants and community groups. Teacher conferences, youth flight days and apprenticeship programs are just a few of the events and programs taking place at the airport year-round. 

St. Louis Regional Airport serves general aviation and corporate customers, providing over 1,500 jobs and generating an economic impact of $480M. The airport is home to West Star Aviation, a heavy maintenance and overhaul business servicing the most popular corporate jet aircraft at locations throughout the Midwest and South. Aircraft from around the world seek out the services of West Star, and they plan to expand their skilled workforce into the foreseeable future. The airport has significant room for development of new facilities to meet the needs of the aviation community for many years to come.                                                                                 
Daniel Adams is a St. Louis University Aviation Management and Flight Science graduate. He has been the Airport Director since April of 2022 after serving as Airport Operations Coordinator and Operations Supervisor at the Columbus, Ohio Regional Airport. 

St. Louis Regional Airport is home to a major West Star aircraft maintenance complex as well as over one hundred aircraft hangars and two runways - 8,100 feet and 6,500 feet long - to accommodate most types of civilian and military aircraft. 

"We just completed our runway rehabilitation this summer - grade runway overlay, new pavement, new lighting," Adams said during his introductory statement. "A public parking lot project is in the works, fuel facility project in the works. We've got a new hangar going up...We are trying to keep up with West Star. They are very aggressive on their timelines and projects, and we are just trying to keep pace with them and keep them happy as a great tenant." 

A new feature of this second Take Flight Forum was a panel of aerospace industry executives who manage facilities at one or more of the airports featured here. 

Randell Gelzer, Sr. Director, Government Operations for the Boeing Company 

Boeing St. Louis has 16,000 employees and 360 suppliers in Missouri and an almost equal number of suppliers in Illinois. Though the Super Hornet and Growler production is winding down, there will continue to be upgrade and support work for those aircraft remaining in service for decades to come. Production of the F-15EX Eagle II, T-7A Red Hawk and MQ-25 Stingray Carrier-Based Unmanned Refueling System aerial tanker are coming on line, and work continues on 777 wing assemblies and classified research projects at Phantom Works. Over $700M has been invested in the St. Louis area facilities in the last decade.
The fabrication facility at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport has grown to accommodate the new MQ-25 production. Boeing will invest $200M in that site, with 300 new jobs projected. The St. Louis-Lambert International Airport site will receive $1.8B in new investment, with 500 jobs expected. 

"Boeing has had a longstanding presence in the community - it's the partnerships, relationships at all levels within this ecosystem whether that's with the airports, non-profits, the business community that's here, the business partners, the chambers and a lot of you here in the audience today." 

$13M of charitable grants, volunteer hours/matches and other resources were given to non-profit organizations last year. STEM programs supported by Boeing include First Robotics, Wings of Hope SOAR Into STEM program and the Red Tail Cadet Program hosted by Elite Aviation. Boeing recently hired their 1000th graduate from the St. Louis Community College Sheet Metal Assembly and Composite Mechanic Pre-employment programs. 

Anthony Ray, VP and General Manager of St. Louis Completions for Gulfstream Aerospace 

Since the debut of the G1 in 1958, Gulfstream Aerospace has produced a long line of business aviation aircraft. Headquartered in Savannah, GA, Gulfstream has 20,000 employees worldwide, twelve service centers and four completion centers that provide paint, interior configuration and other custom work ordered by the customer. The most recent completion center opened at St. Louis Downtown Airport this summer at the site of the existing service center in operation since 2017. 
Gulfstream is making a $28.5M investment to increase the capacity of the St. Louis completion center to serve a larger proportion of Gulfstream aircraft.

"What drove us to St. Louis? I'll honestly say it's the relationships that we currently have with Bi-State Development, the local government leaders in the region, with Sandra [Shore] and her phenomenal group at the St. Louis Downtown Airport. It just made for a great place for Gulfstream to find its next strategic environment for us to grow and be a part of."

Gulfstream plans to add another 200 employees to the 500 already at St. Louis Downtown Airport, especially in the avionics, interior cabin installation and systems coordinator areas of expertise. Workforce development efforts are underway to provide vocational counseling to educators and apprenticeships for high school students at the Gulfstream facility. Over time, these student apprentices will be trained in specific trades that may lead directly to full-time employment after graduation. 

Jason Noll, Director of Sales and Marketing for AVMATS

AVMATS is a family-owned company founded in 1978 that services jet aircraft with specialized missions, including business jets and retired military aircraft. They have facilities at Spirit of St. Louis Airport and MidAmerica St. Louis Airport as well as a warehouse and shop in O'Fallon, MO. AVMATS services 300-400 aircraft at Spirit of St. Louis Airport each year, some internationally based. They perform scheduled maintenance and repairs, engine service and avionics modifications. AVMATS has just under 200 employees, many having advanced skills working with sheet metal, composites, upholstery and wood structures. AVMATS employees stay with the company over 13 years on average, a significant achievement in the aircraft maintenance industry.

In the early years, the decision to become a full-service maintenance and modification business at Spirit of St. Louis Airport was a considerable leap, and good relations with the airport management was the key to their success. Access to a port of entry is also beneficial to serve the specialized needs of clientele from around the world. 

"They [airport management] helped us work in and around the airfield, giving us lease opportunities, giving us the ability to build an engine test cell, to build some hangars, to add some more capacity and support all throughout the process...From our client's standpoint, it's an easy place to visit and it's a wonderful place to stay while their aircraft is being serviced. And then from our standpoint as a business, the airport administration is super responsive, they're pro-business and pro-growth. So they've made everything possible for us."

Brian Bauwens, General Manager of East Alton and St. Louis Downtown Airport Sites for West Star Aviation

The West Star Aviation facility at St. Louis Regional Airport has over 600 employees and over 400,000 square feet of hangar space, with another 100,000 square feet due to be added in the near future. It is a full-service MRO - Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul site - providing paint, interior avionics and related services for a variety business jet aircraft. West Star also has a 50,000 square foot facility at St. Louis Downtown Airport.  In the last twelve rolling months, 850 aircraft have been serviced at these locations.
"The access to talent, the relationships, all play a part. The biggest challenge coming up is the education piece and getting more people up to date. But in this area, the relationships with Danny [Adams] at St. Louis Regional and Sandy [Shore] at St. Louis Downtown for us with the facilities, the manpower, it just makes sense to do the growth here in St. Louis."

The Aero Experience thanks the airport directors and aerospace industry executives who participated in the Second Annual Take Flight Forum. We also thank Bi-State Development and the St. Louis Regional Freightway for hosting the event.

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