St Louis: The Incredible Shrinking Airport

Lambert-St Louis International Airport is a hub without an airline. It has been struggling with the dramatic drop in traffic since TWA went under and American slowly culled the remains, and now it’s trying to reconfigure itself to be a smaller airport. That’s not something you see very often.

Just a few years ago, St Louis was the major hub of TWA. Traffic was booming and they even saw a need to build a new runway. Now that runway has proven to be completely unnecessary. American plucked TWA out of bankruptcy and has done nothing but shrink St Louis since. The halls of concourses C and D used to be packed full of travelers. Now, as I discovered when I flew through St Louis on American in December, D is nearly empty and C is fading fast. So here’s the new plan:

The New St Louis Lambert Airport Configuration

Not much is changing on Concourse A. That’s the home of the “other” airlines. Nobody is moving in or out over there. But there are a few stragglers currently scattered that will be consolidated on C. Concourse B will basically be shut as the last tenant, AirTran, will move into a space in C where American used to be. Concourse D is already cut off just a few gates in, but now the rest will be closed as well. Frontier and Cape Air will move over to C and that’s where Midwest will go when it starts service. Concourse E, which is part of a separate terminal and isn’t connected to the rest of the airport, will continue to be the home of Southwest. That’s the liveliest part of the airport these days, and it’s the newest part as well.

Back in concourses A and C, $50 million in renovations will take place. There will be new lighting, paint, and restrooms to give them a newer look. There will also be new restrooms and ticket counters in the main terminal area. They’ll be raising ceilings and increasing natural light throughout to give it a more modern feel.

Basically, they’re bringing an old terminal up to par while trying to seal off the past. That’s a painful thing to go through, I imagine.


30 Responses to St Louis: The Incredible Shrinking Airport

  1. How to mothball an airport. Were it not for American Eagle and SunCountry operating out of Terminal B at DFW that facility would be all but dead in the water as well. Terminal B was once the hub of Braniff and it has seen numerous iterations since as well, including the original FIS facility for the entire airport.

  2. Bryan B says:

    It is sad to see what is happening at STL. I never had the opportunity to see STL in its heyday as a TW and AA hub. It looks like CVG and MEM may have to do something similar in the future.

    You mention the unnecessary runway that was built. Actually according to many it was unnecessary even when it was first built. Here is a link to an interesting article about the runway project and the neighborhood it destroyed: http://www.pbase.com/jboard/carrollton The text in this article is hard to read as it is light grey on dark grey. If you ‘highlight’ the text it is easier to read.

  3. David SFeastbay says:

    Having worked for TWA there was nothing like connecting at STL and to see a TWA/TWE plane at every gate in B/C/D concourses and every plane type in the fleet coming and going. Riding the mobile lounge between C and D and seeing thousands of people all over the place.

    It would be very sad to travel via STL now and not see that, and to see it becoming a ghost town or would that be ghost airport. What ex-TWA airport staff still working there for AA must feel very sad to see what has happen, I know I would feel that way if I worked there because I feel that way now.

    The same for JFK, one terminal knocked down and replaced and the other another empty ghost building. It’s not the that a new terminal for JetBlue isn’t nice, it’s not seeing the TWA hey day still in effect with 747’s jetting out every evening across the atlantic.

  4. Ed Casper says:

    Maybe TWA would have been better off merging with America West. Come to think about it, maybe America West would have been better off merging with TWA instead of buying out US AIrways.

  5. Barry says:

    it is a sad chapter for a storied airport. it seems daffy to cut off one terminal from another, too. i’m glad Lambert got props in Up in the Air, at least.

  6. Dan says:

    Barry,

    Many airports have separate terminals. LAX is probably the best example, but MSP and DTW also fit the bill too.

  7. A says:

    Last time I flew through STL was Christmas 1998 on a connection where I changed carriers from TWA to NWA. Think we landed on concourse D and of course it was a run to the other end of the airport. Recall it being very busy with Christmas rush and all. Can’t believe that was 12 years and many many changes in the airline buiz later.

    Unfortunately airports depend so much on airlines that quite frankly aren’t all that stable. The only reason STL was once as big as it was is thanks to TWA, not local O&D traffic. As they say in the stock market, diversification is the key to riding the ups and downs. Too bad every airport isn’t as lucky as an ORD or DEN, etc.

  8. rob l says:

    The sad reality is, even with TWA, and even when there were more businesses here, St. Louis was probably overserviced as a market (did a city this size ever really need a direct flight to London?).

    Poor/shortsighted decisions by civic leaders hurt the local economy long before the national economy started going through it, and the AA takeover exacerbated things as well.

    Size-wize, the airport really wasn’t large enough for the service it was receiving at the time, but tried to make do with what it could (even in its heyday, it was just a nightmare to navigate). Its location, so close to residents, made a proper layout impossible. When that traffic dried up, you were left with what you have now.

    The E concourse (formerly known as the East Terminal) is actually a great example of how a small airport should be built. Spacous, modern, light, convenient. It’s too bad the money isn’t there to do what really needs to be done-build a new terminal building on the current location of the D concourse. It currently still has all of the problems associated with larger airports (long walks, nearly impossible parking, etc) because so much space is currently occupied by stuff that serves no purpose.

    Hopefully the project will work, but it’s not even making the best of a bad situation, it’s just making something of a bad situation.

  9. Brian says:

    The drop-off sounds very much like what’s happened in Pittsburgh…one of the best, user friendly airports in the country is underwhelmed with traffic..

  10. BF says:

    Which airports are next in line for this kind of sad drop-off in traffic and de-hubinization (just invented a word): MEM, CVG, MSP…. others?

  11. Andrew says:

    BF wrote:

    Which airports are next in line for this kind of sad drop-off in traffic and de-hubinization (just invented a word): MEM, CVG, MSP…. others?

    Cranky will correct me if I’m wrong, I’m sure, but I seem to remember Delta promising (yeah yeah, I know…) to maintain MSP as a hub, something they haven’t necessarily said about CVG and MEM.

  12. David SFeastbay says:

    Andrew wrote:

    BF wrote:
    but I seem to remember Delta promising (yeah yeah, I know…) to maintain MSP as a hub, something they haven’t necessarily said about CVG and MEM.

    Isn’t the whole issue with MSP is that DL must keep a certain amount of employees in the state or they have to pay millions back to the state for what was given to NW? Or something like that. I think when all the DL/NW dust settles and DL catches it’s breath, CVG will go the way of PIT and STL. Face it US didn’t need a big operation in PIT while having a major operation in PHL, just like AA doesn’t need a STL hub when it has major operations in ORD and DFW. DL knows that with CVG with DTW so close. The flights will slowly drop at CVG until DL just has service to it’s other hubs and maybe a few high volumn routes.

    That’s my thoughts anyway.

  13. JackSTL says:

    If STL fathers had the fore-thought they embrace this opportunity to demo and rebuild B and D…then when complete do the same to A and C. Lots of money, no doubt, but at times it helps to build with a vision instead of a need. It would also likely be a cost savings as opposed to building an entirely new airport when things start getting cramped.

  14. A says:

    Andrew wrote:

    but I seem to remember Delta promising (yeah yeah, I know…) to maintain MSP as a hub

    One thing to note about MSP is that it was a very profitable hub for NW. Believe it or not there are quite a few major corporate HQ located in the region which create profitable business O&D traffic. St. Louis metro is similarly sized of the Twin Cities but doesn’t have near the corporate base to demand an airline hub. That said, if DL downsizes MSP it leaves an opportunity for competitors to move in and increase competition.

    As for shrinking airports, given that the major hubs and largest population centers are probably safe I think for secondary hubs/focus cities it all depends on what happens in the economy. DTW seems like it could see some downsizing if that region continues in their current depression economy. Places like LAS & FLL are so dependant on tourism that a prolonged bad economy could cripple an airport.

  15. MIchael in MKE says:

    Its very sad to see another hub go the ways of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Especially Pittsburgh where I though was very user friendly and definatly one of the most modern airports. Cincinnati will definatly be next they will be downgraded to the killer title “Focus City” where basically you can go from New York to Los Angeles, but somewhat encouraging news for CVG today that Delta will reinstate service to San Antonio. Also everyone has talked about Memphis being on the cutting board Delta since merger annoucements has added the most flights out of Memphis that any of its other hubs pretty much making it a reliever for Atlanta.

    Also Delta must keep at least 10000 jobs in Minnesota until 2016. Also they have a commitment to keep at least 400 flights out of MSP.

  16. David SFeastbay says:

    MIchael in MKE wrote:

    Also Delta must keep at least 10000 jobs in Minnesota until 2016. Also they have a commitment to keep at least 400 flights out of MSP.

    I knew it was something like that. Should be interesting to see what happens then. Or by then since 6 yrs is a long time in the airline biz.

  17. CF says:

    Bryan B wrote:

    You mention the unnecessary runway that was built. Actually according to many it was unnecessary even when it was first built. Here is a link to an interesting article about the runway project and the neighborhood it destroyed: http://www.pbase.com/jboard/carrollton The text in this article is hard to read as it is light grey on dark grey. If you ‘highlight’ the text it is easier to read.

    Good read, Bryan. I always like hearing about the ghost neighborhoods surrounding airports. You’ll still find plenty of empty streets at the western end of LAX on what would have been prime ocean view territory.

    Ed Casper wrote:

    Maybe TWA would have been better off merging with America West. Come to think about it, maybe America West would have been better off merging with TWA instead of buying out US AIrways.

    Well, I think some thought that might have happened. Right before TWA was gobbled up by American, I was working on creating pricing for our TWA codeshare markets. (I had never even heard of places like Cape Girardeau.) I think the expectation was that it likely would have gone to a merger down the road, at least from the peanut gallery.

    Barry wrote:

    it is a sad chapter for a storied airport. it seems daffy to cut off one terminal from another, too. i’m glad Lambert got props in Up in the Air, at least.

    I think it’s really just the best use of the space. When they built the East Terminal, it was created with its own security area despite being connected to the D gates physically. The problem with D was that it was a really long walk to get to the gates from its security area, so it makes sense to close that first. I’m sure it would have been ideal to close the East Terminal and consolidate everyone in the old terminal footprint, but the East Terminal is the nicest place there. No way would anyone want to abandon that. So that’s how we ended up where we are today, I think.

    A wrote:

    Unfortunately airports depend so much on airlines that quite frankly aren’t all that stable. The only reason STL was once as big as it was is thanks to TWA, not local O&D traffic.

    Depending on unstable airlines isn’t the problem. It’s depending upon unstable airlines who have built up such absurdly over-sized operations. Pittsburgh and St Louis fell victim to that for sure.

    BF wrote:

    Which airports are next in line for this kind of sad drop-off in traffic and de-hubinization (just invented a word): MEM, CVG, MSP…. others?

    As others have said, MSP is actually quite a good market. It’s also the best market to connect the upper Midwest – so it’s not going anywhere. Also, Memphis appears to be doing well – Northwest really figured out how to make that work, and I think that’s in much better shape than Cincinnati. That’s the one I’d guess is in the worst shape, and the continued cuts show that.

    JackSTL wrote:

    If STL fathers had the fore-thought they embrace this opportunity to demo and rebuild B and D…then when complete do the same to A and C. Lots of money, no doubt, but at times it helps to build with a vision instead of a need. It would also likely be a cost savings as opposed to building an entirely new airport when things start getting cramped.

    That costs waaay too much money, and with the serious reduction in revenues at that airport, it would be a tough sell to get the locals to pay for that.

  18. Ryan B says:

    It is really sad to see the state of the once busy STL. In 1998-89 I was 22 and an Elite 1 member of TWA Aviators. I have no idea how many hours (days) I spent in the STL airport. The Ambassador lounge overlooked the entire TWA fleet moving to destinations around the US and a few across the globe. I took the STL-LGW in TransWorld One more than once and will never forget my TransWorld One flights to Honolulu. What I miss most about TWA are the employees. There was a woman in the Ambassador Club that had a daughter attending my university. She always immediately recognized me and made sure I had an upgrade with a vegetarian meal. There were the flight attendants that became my friends. One Thanksgiving my friend and I made it from Rome to JFK and then to STL where we got stuck. We talked to our flight attendant friends and ended up staying in the same hotel. It was a Thanksgiving I will never forget. TWA was a great airline with great people. It was never the same once AA took over. Maybe STL should dedicate the now closed concourses B & D to Carl Ichan. We, and the people of St Louis, have him to thank for the current state of STL. After selling off TWA’s most profitable assets, he managed to get a deal to exit the company that ensured its ultimate demise. No airline can fly when someone can sell seats that bring little or no revenue to the company. I wish STL the best of luck! I MISS TWA!!!

    • Jenny Rice says:

      Do you remember how long that Transworld flight from St. Louis to Honolulu took? We flew from St Louis to Honolulu in the summer of 1990, and I remember the flight being ~ 6hrs. My coworkers think I’m crazy.

  19. Allen says:

    Why does Delta have to keep those job levels? I don’t believe that NWA never met it’s obligations under previous loans and never got more than a slap on the wrist. IIRC this money is what they still owe from the bailouts 25 years ago, isn’t it? If they haven’t had to pay the money back by now what does it really mean to owe it? The state wouldn’t want them to just go and pull out any more than they otherwise would. After all, the states leaders probably realize that a keeping a non-stop to London or Tokyo is more to the area than a few hundred or even thousand jobs.

    That’s not to say that Delta is looking to weasel out of it’s obligations. It’s just that Delta has plenty of wiggle room to do a lot of different things at MSP if they so choose.

  20. A says:

    Ryan B wrote:

    Maybe STL should dedicate the now closed concourses B & D to Carl Ichan. We, and the people of St Louis, have him to thank for the current state of STL.

    Carl Ichan wasn’t the first corporate raider in the airline business and I’m sure there are more to come. That said, I would not discount the effect that Flight 800 had on the airline.

  21. Eric says:

    This is very sad indeed…STL is an extreme case of ‘landside mothballing’ I see going on at MANY airports these days. Going forward, I wonder why they even want to keep Concourse D intact..not that the light rail connects the East Terminal with the Main. It was built as an afterthought to begin with and, even in its hay day, had the functionality and charm of a state correctional facility (IMHO).

    Slightly OT, but DL would be foolish to pull down MSP in the foreseeable future. The Cities economy is diverse and strong..as mentioned above, HQ to powerhouses like General Mills, Target, BestBuy, USBank, UnitedHealth and up-and-coming Medtronics. MSP is the economic vortex for the upper midwest…the only region of the US that has ridden out the ‘decession’ somewhat unscathed.

  22. Allen says:

    @Eric, MPLS has not faired well in this last recession. It hasn’t been as bad as in some areas but it hasn’t gone untouched. That would be Texas (more specifically Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, McAllen and a few others) In fact, it’s experienced a bit of a brain drain during this last decade.

  23. SEAN says:

    Since AA & UA are hubbed at ORD & DL wants to serve the same area of the upper midwest, it stands to reason that MSP would be the logicle place for Dl to have a hub. Also it is possible to divert some international flights from DTW to MSP. On the other hand DTW can be viewed as an alternate to ORD with it’s large number of flights overseas. That is where CVG, MEM & SLC come up short.

  24. Eric says:

    @ Allen:

    sorry Allen, i should have put more emphasis on ‘relatively’. I (was) moved from Minni to DC in 06 and some friends back there have indicated things are tougher. I didnt mean to minimize anything.

  25. CK says:

    Reminds me of whats happened in Pittsburgh which was once a hub of US Airways that had hundreds of flights a day including transatlantic and is now shrunk immensely with some areas even boarded off. Perhaps not as bad as STL but PIT seems so empty these days with such few passengers the airport is never crowded.

  26. David SFeastbay says:

    CK wrote:

    Reminds me of whats happened in Pittsburgh which was once a hub of US Airways that had hundreds of flights a day including transatlantic and is now shrunk immensely with some areas even boarded off. Perhaps not as bad as STL but PIT seems so empty these days with such few passengers the airport is never crowded.

    I never did understand why US had a large operation in PIT, PHL, BWI when they are so close to each other.

  27. Tom E (Agent-in-Charge TWA 1986-1991) says:

    I was a ‘red coat’ (Agent In Charge) in STL and I remember helping coordinate the connection of 799 unaccompained minors (7-13 yr olds) during the summer of 1990. It was a record! We didn’t misconnect one kid and this was just a small part of the operation. Every day we handled many oversold widebody jets to the east and west coast, winter flight operations and just busy, busy, busy. You couldn’t walk down concourse C or B due to heavy congestion of people walking/running to their next TWA flight.

    Ahhhhh – the days of working ‘The Dome’ (the end of concours C) with all the international flights departing within hours of each other and making the ‘numbers’ match after the flight departed.

    Miss OLD STL very much and it will always be in a special place in my heart along with my fellow TWAers/OZARKers who will do the same.
    Tom E AIC

  28. john says:

    Going from Louisville to LAX….St. Louis was always the quickest route and best hub city….much better than ORD, DFW or ATL

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