St. Louis Lambert International Airport continues see steady growth in service with the addition of several non-stop flights.
Southwest Airlines expanded its daily departure total to 110 flights with new service to Pensacola, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina that started Sunday. The airline will now fly to 44 domestic markets from the airport.
St. Louis will also be one of just 15 cities with international service from Southwest with its recently announced flight to Cancun scheduled to start in November.
Southwest’s growth in St. Louis has come as the carrier has switched some of its focus away from its largest hub at Midway Airport in Chicago. Lambert International’s Director, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge says the airport has proven to be a better fit for service to some cities than Midway.
“We’ve seen about five, if not six markets, that we’re pulled from Midway to St. Louis that have a larger connecting base” said Hamm-Niebruegge. “Those markets like Little Rock and Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Wichita, Des Moines.”
Lambert International has gone through numerous changes over the years. In its heyday, it handled 500 daily flights as the main hub for the former Trans World Airlines (TWA). In 2000, the airport totaled almost 457,000 flights with 30.5 million passengers passing through its terminals.
After the financially strapped TWA was purchased by American Airlines in 2001, service from Lambert International steadily diminished to its low point in 2009. It was then when the facility attempted to reinvent itself.
$70 million in bonds were sold to finance renovations to the aging structure. $30 million in additional money came in from insurance coverage after a tornado struck the airport in 2011.
Southwest started announcing expanded service at Lambert in 2009 and has gradually built itself into the facility’s dominant carrier, surpassing 100 flights a day in 2016.
Currently the airport handles 270 daily flights, with Southwest accounting for 54% of the traffic. Hamm-Niebruegge notes the facility has experienced 20 straight months of growth.
“We’ve seen the bulk of that with Southwest, but we’ve also seen Frontier (Airlines) grow” said Hamm- Niebruegge. “We’ve seen Alaska (Airlines) grow. We’ve seen American, Delta and United put in larger aircraft, not necessary more destinations, but they’ve upgraded the size of the aircraft.”
According to Hamm-Niebruegge, St. Louis is in a category with other Midwestern metro areas that have population bases ranging from 2-3 million people – places such as Cincinnati, Cleveland or Kansas City.
Larger urban centers – Chicago, Dallas, Houston – have significantly higher percentages of business passengers that provide greater profits for airlines, and are more sustainable as large hubs. Hamm-Niebruegge says the days of St. Louis competing with those markets are probably over.
“When we had our mega-hub with TWA and American, 30% of our market was local, 70% was connecting. That was a model that really financially didn’t work for the carriers.”
Currently, 85% of the passenger traffic at Lambert Airport originates locally.
Hamm-Niebruegge thinks a realistic goal for the future of air travel through St. Louis is continued steady expansion.
“What I think you can do is continue this incremental growth, as we continue to see the economy grow, and as we continue to focus on the fact that we do believe we are a strong connecting market, and what might make sense.”
St. Louis Lambert Airport ranks 32nd in the country for traffic with more than 6.2 million passenger boarding’s, while Kansas City is 38th with slightly more than 5.1 million.