St. Louis Airport Gives Aviation Enthusiasts a Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airport Operations

The STL AvDay crew watches as a Southwest Boeing 737 departs (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ian McMurtry)

As crowds gathered downtown Saturday to celebrate the St. Louis Blues winning their first Stanley Cup, AvGeeks would have their own first-time event to celebrate 13 miles to the northwest at the St. Louis-Lambert International Airport as the airport hosted the first edition of STL AvDay. A behind-the-scenes tour of the airport, 20 plus guests were chosen from a social media contest in May and were given a three-hour tour of the airfield and a lunch with the airport operations director.

Touring the Airfield

The tour would begin inside Terminal 1’s closed Concourse B, which the airport has turned into a multi-purpose facility that includes a crew training area and rental space for wedding and public events. After gathering at 10 a.m., the groups were split into three sections which would view the airport’s operations center, emergency response bus and baggage handling system.

Being put into group A, my group would be taking a tour of the bus first. A quick walk down the dark hallway of Concourse B and down a flight of stairs would take us inside the St. Louis Command Bus. Inside the bus, the airport has equipped it with multiple phone stations for representatives of the airline, emergency medical services (EMS), airport rescue and fire fighting department (ARFF) and the airport with each station coming with a charging port, phone and small desk for the workers to use.

The bus also comes with features for everyone to use including access to all of the airport’s cameras, an additional rotating camera 15 feet above the bus, a microwave, a refrigerator and walls that are lined with whiteboards to quickly write down any important information. The airport says that the bus is used at least once a month during drills to make sure it is well tested and people are accustomed to using the bus’s systems.

A look at the forward portion of the STL Airport Command Bus (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ian McMurtry)

Once off the bus, our mini-group would go back into Concourse B before climbing the stairs the other direction and heading up into the airport operations tower. Situated on the end of Concourse B, the airport operations tower has a view of Runways 12L/30R and 12R/30L as well as the north facing gates of Concourses A, B and C. The crew explained how airport operations are run, watching the weather through multiple services and using the emergency alert system for the airport if needed.

As the split group tour completed, our group returned to the ground level and would board a bus for the baggage claim system. Located under the Minoru Yamasaki designed central building, the airport’s baggage claim system is separated into two sections for the Transportation Security Administration and the airlines.

For the TSA, three explosive detection machines and three bag searching stations give bags the green light before proceeding to one of the six departure baggage carousels. Each major airline gets its own carousel in St. Louis, with the only one not getting a Terminal 1 carousel being Southwest Airlines, which operates out of the distant Terminal 2.

A look from the Operations Tower as the morning storm system clears out (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ian McMurtry)

Behind the scenes, the airport is filled with old signs of previous operators. Signs and stickers point out previous airlines such as AirTran Airways, Northwest Airlines, and the venerable Trans World Airlines.

Back on the bus, we returned to Concourse B but would stay on the bus as the other two mini-groups would emerge and we would take the bus to the other end of the field for a tour of the airport’s airport rescue and fire fighting departing building. The bus would give passengers on the right-side good views of American and Southwest aircraft at Concourse C and Terminal 2 while the left side of the bus got taxiway and runway views.

With the AA MD-80 retiring soon, the aircraft was a must-see during the bus tour (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ian McMurtry)

Once we arrived at the north side ARFF building, the large tour group would be given free rein over how much they wanted to see. Attendees could climb inside the ARFF trucks and could roam around bay areas of the firehouse as long as they remained within eyesight of one of the tour’s many guides.

ARFF Truck 45 inside awaiting its next mission (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ian McMurtry)

St. Louis is unique in being a medium-size hub airport with two emergency response stations. The fire crews explained that since the Federal Aviation Administration requires such short fire response times for aircraft in distress, the airport’s construction of Runway 11/29 in the early 2000s forced them to also build a firehouse closer to the new runway to meet the time requirement.

Following the fire station tour, we were back aboard the bus and moved over to the Echo Pad to view departures on Runway 30L. We were treated to a small but worthwhile amount of departures including an American A319, two Southwest 737-700s and a GoJet CRJ-700. Between departures, the tour group could also indulge in the airport’s snow removal vehicles which had been stored on the Echo Pad.

Snow equipment of all shapes and sizes were parked on Echo Pad for AvGeeks to view (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ian McMurtry)
A Delta CRJ-700 crosses Concourse B and the control tower (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ian McMurtry)
With over 60 percent of the St. Louis market share, we were inevitably going to see a Southwest 737 during our tour (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ian McMurtry)

While Runway 30L would see massive amounts of use, the parallel Runway 30R would be closed for AvDay as the runway is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar resurfacing project. The airport hopes to finish this project soon as it forces the airfield to use Runway 11/29 in the interim which can lengthen arrival and departure times.

After a group photo out on the Echo Pad, we reboarded the bus and returned to the terminal, taking a similar path to our outbound leg to the ARFF station with the left side of the bus now getting gate side views and the right side getting taxiway and runway views.

Looking to the Future

Once the tour returned to Concourse B, we returned to our original starting point for a lunch and meeting with Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge.

Airport Director Hamm-Hiebruegge started with going over where the St. Louis airport is currently, priding her Midwestern airport for a 4 percent increase in seats that ballooned St. Louis’s seats offered yearly to 19,501,474 in the 2018 calendar year. With this increase in seats came an even better increase in passengers, with 2018 seeing a 5.9 percent increase to 15,632,586 passengers.

But the airport’s growth isn’t singular, with Hamm-Niebruegge showing that enplanements grew 5.8 percent during 2018 while connecting enplanements would grow 18.0 percent. Nowadays, connecting passengers account for 22.9 percent of all St. Louis fliers.

Although the City of St. Louis owns the airport, the airport is expected to turn enough profit to stand on its own. The airport director went over both the airline operations profit of landing fees, gate fees and one-time usage fees as well as non-airline profit that comes from their five parking structures, concessions and newsstands sales. Furthermore, St. Louis was one of 12 airports to grandfather a gross receipt tax payment plan, paying $6,688,428 to the city in 2018.

The airport director also delved into costs of landing fees for the airlines and why the airport has been pushing for more cargo traffic for St. Louis. For 2019, landing fees for St. Louis are $6.61/1000 multiplied by the aircraft’s frame weight in pounds. By inviting larger aircraft, the airport makes more financial gain since larger aircraft have higher frame weights. Current cargo operations are from FedEx, UPS and DHL which the airport hopes to expand in the following years to international cargo operators to increase both airport revenue and create new markets for local Missourians.

One thing that Hamm-Niebruegge prides her team on is restructuring St. Louis’s costs after the disbanding of the TWA/American hub in the 2000s. This was clearly shown in their cost per enplaned passenger numbers, which have reduced from has high as $13.76 in 2013 to just $8.87 last year. This drop also puts St. Louis below the average cost per enplaned passenger number for medium hub airports, which for 2018 was $9.07.

In recent years, the airport’s strategic plan has focused on providing a more unique feel to the airport as it moves in a new logo. The airport’s 2015-2020 goal was “to connect our region with the world” and has been pleased with how some parts of the project have done.

One way the airport has revitalized its image is through a new branding program. While many airports tend to shy away from using red in logos due to its ability to draw our frustration and anger, St. Louis has embraced the primary color and sees it as a way to stand out more. By using a red and yellow colors scheme as well as finding ways to include “STL” in phrases, the airport believes that this will create a positive and lasting image for travelers both from and passing through St. Louis.

The airport has also looked at some quality of life changes with the addition of charging stations, ADA stanchions, LED lights in all terminals via a deal with Amren and water bottle filling stations that have all been met with positive responses. The airport plans to continue this trend by adding eight to nine more water bottle filling stations and adding a sign to the entrance of the airfield to become more visible for highway traffic.

The airport continues to address the need for new restaurants especially in Terminal 2 with a Three Kings Public House open near Gate E33 and a Dunkins Express going in at Gate E40. Despite already having local brands like Schlafly and the Pasta House, Hamm-Niebruegge noted that the current trend of adding local restaurants to the nearby airport has been considered and all options are being considered for future tenants.

As for large projects, some are still in the planning phase while others have been given the green light. The airport will start construction on a new $50 million fuel farm on the north end of the airfield but the airlines have agreed to fund the project. Other overhaul projects for St. Louis include a new bus terminal with a grab-and-go restaurant and reworking the pathing of the landside arrivals level of Terminal 2 to include a pull off for cars to pick up passengers and a new entrance to the parking garage from Lambert International Boulevard.

The airport director sees some other long term projects starting to be analyzed. Following the reopening of Gates C28-C30 in 2019, the airport has started to look into renovating and modernizing the remaining C gates and the 11 D gates in Terminal 1. The $25 million project is something the airport would like to start soon with Southwest potentially looking at another Terminal 2 expansion in the near future. The airport is also looking to move the Federal Inspection Station from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1 but costs are still being calculated for that project.

As for airline growth, Hamm-Niebruegge says that she is happy with the growth the airport has seen over the recent years. She would like to see larger airlines expand their current routes to includes service more than once or twice a day and thinks that low-cost carriers like Frontier and Southwest will help provide these additional flights. Welcoming all airlines to grow St. Louis service, she vows that the airfield will not go down another dehubbing road as it did with American and TWA. Besides that, she also says that Europe remains a high priority and that they are still in talks with airlines about 2020 service following the collapse of WOW air. Domestically, the director specifically listed off Indianapolis, Louisville and Albuquerque as places she would like to see return to the airport’s nonstop route map.

And with AvGeks in attendance, Hamm-Niebruegge also decided to share some insight into any planespotting projects. The airport has started looking in a few potential sites for a planespotting park with the perimeter road being considered for a new site after the previous spotting area off of Lindbergh Drive was removed for Runway 11/29.

While the director hopes to see a park become a reality, she doesn’t promise anything and says both construction price and the demand for a quality park St. Louis can be proud of are limiting factors on if the site gets built. She hopes that STL AvDay was a huge success and if the airport sees positive feedback and time in their 2020 schedule they would like to attempt to do another STL AvDay in the future.

Ian McMurtry

Although Ian McMurtry was never originally an avgeek, he did enjoy watching US Airways aircraft across western Pennsylvania in the early 2000s. He lived along the Pennsylvania Railroad and took a liking to trains but a change of scenery in the mid-2000s saw him shift more of an interest into aviation. He would eventually express this passion by taking flying lessons in mid-Missouri and joining AirlineGeeks in 2013. Now living in Wichita, Kansas, Ian is in college majoring in aerospace engineering and minoring in business administration at Wichita State University.
Ian McMurtry