An airport in the Metro East that has long been considered by some as a drain on taxpayers is taking a significant step to increase revenue. After years of promoting free parking, MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah, about 25 miles east of downtown St. Louis on I-64, will start charging a fee in 2018. It's a decision airport leaders do not take lightly.
"We're not trying to lasso any kind of free revenue from somewhere," said Tim Cantwell, director of MidAmerica.
"What we are trying to do is have a normal business model. A normal growing airport."
There are numbers showing passenger business is increasing at MidAmerica. The Federal Aviation Administration reports around 80,000 passengers boarded flights at the airport in 2016, compared to 32,500 in 2015.
Cantwell is hoping to have a parking fee structure in place by April. But there are several steps before that can happen. The existing lot has to be reworked to include security features. A payment option, which could include smartphone technology, has to be agreed on and rates have to be set.
That could be left up to a parking management company if it wins a possible contract.
"There might be a current parking lot manager, business, in this area — St. Louis parking — some other parking that's around to want to bid for this contract and then tell us what their experiences are," Cantwell said.
He added that airports throughout the country, on average, receive around 30 percent of their revenue from parking.
At least one aviation industry consultant said that was possible, but odds are that estimate could be high.
"About half the revenue, on average, will come from the airlines," said David Plavin, who added that would include landing fees.
"And the rest of it is to come from things customers pay the airport for. So, like parking."
Plavin used to be the aviation director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and served as president of the Airports Council International, which comes up with policies and recommendations for the industry. Even with parking revenue, he says smaller operations are at risk of being squeezed out, thanks to trends like airline consolidation, so they need to focus on price and convenience.
"They are trying to sell the idea of the lack of congestion. The ease of accessibility."
Those are two factors that Alexandra Mitchell found attractive during her visit to MidAmerica on a recent Sunday afternoon. The Marian, Illinois, resident thinks those features would still provide more positives than a larger airport, even after a small parking fee is implemented.
"We're close to Carbondale," she said while waiting with her sister-in-law for a relative who was flying in from Florida.
"There's a lot of pay-to-park there and a quarter for 30 minutes is not so bad."
But she has her limits.
"If it was more than 10 bucks to come and park, it would affect our decision."
Another passenger, Anthony Hoelscher, lives in Florida but grew up in Union, Missouri. He also lived on the south side of St. Louis for about a decade and is a big fan of the convenience and price of flights at MidAmerica. Hoelscher admits there are some drawbacks to smaller airports. He was looking to kill time on a recent Sunday afternoon after his flight was delayed for several hours.
"That would definitely probably be an advantage of a bigger airport, where there'll probably be some options for food and bars."
MidAmerica's website lists some concessions that are currently available, including snacks, pizza, and adult beverages.
Expanding those amenities do not appear to be the focus of airport officials at this point. Cantwell said they are sticking with a business plan that includes strategic passenger service, cargo business and cooperation with neighboring Scott Air Force Base.
Those elements could be vital as the airport attempts to be self-sustaining and possibly shed a controversial image held by some that MidAmerica has been a drain on taxpayers.
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