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No longer flyover country, St. Louis kicks off first direct flights to Europe in 20 years

Sabra Fejzic, hugs her grandchildren at St. Louis Lambert International Airport
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sabra Fejzic hugs her grandchildren at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Wednesday after being in Sarajevo for 6 weeks. Fejzic was part of the inaugural Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to St. Louis.

Updated at 7:55 p.m. on June 1 

St. Louisans can now get to Europe on a non-stop flight, an option that hasn’t existed for more than two decades.

Wednesday marked the beginning of Lufthansa’s service between St. Louis Lambert International Airport and Frankfurt, which will operate three times a week.

“Something like this has the ability to change the perception of St. Louis,” said Kitty Ratcliffe, President of Explore St. Louis. “We’re not ‘fly-over country’ if people are flying here.”

Ratcliffe said she expects the number of travelers to the region from Germany and other European countries like Austria, Switzerland, Spain and Italy will grow exponentially because of the new route.

The new flight is a major achievement for the airport, regional business and government leaders, who’ve long sought a direct flight across the Atlantic, said Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, Lambert’s director. The lack of direct flights to Europe has been a sore point for many in the region, especially since airports in smaller markets have been able to secure non-stop flights, she said.

When TWA operated a hub in St. Louis there were regular non-stop flights to Europe.

“It’s probably been the number one ask of things that people call and said, ‘Why can’t you get this done?’” she said.

One of the major challenges in Hamm-Niebruegge’s eyes was a lack of regional cohesion in presenting a strong pitch to airlines.

“It’s a lot for an airline to come into a market this size on international service and not know whether or not it’s going to be supported and whether it’s going to be successful,” she said. “They’re looking for those first two years to test the market and see.”

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, St. Louis Airport Commission chairwoman, gives remarks regarding the expansion of Lufthansa, a German airline, into St. Louis on Wednesday at Lambert International Airport.

St. Louis’ airport has been an attractive location for Lufthansa to expand to because of the region’s size and robust travel with Europe, said Don Bunkenburg, who heads sales and commercial business for the airline in the western U.S.

“Finally we had enough aircraft and backing from the right corporations in the local community to be able to introduce the flight,” he said.

And now that it’s here, business leaders in St. Louis expect the route will see significant success. It was a main desire of many foreign owned businesses, said Tim Nowak, executive director of World Trade Center St. Louis.

“Time and again, the number one barrier to increased investment in this community was lack of connectivity,” he said.“St. Louis has world class industries, an educated workforce.”

Nowak explained it became a priority for his organization and many others throughout the region to relaunch direct international flights to Europe’s mainland.

Along with the inaugural flight from Lambert, Nowak and a delegation of 31 other business and government leaders are going to Germany to promote the route and St. Louis region. It’s a connection local leaders want to see expand, said St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones.

“This breaks a longstanding log jam for people in St. Louis to get to continental Europe and other parts of the world,” she said.

The new flight can enhance St. Louis’ standing as a transportation, shipping and geospatial hub to foreign companies, Jones added.

It also helps St. Louis become more accessible and attractive for tourism and conventions, which can bring people to the region who may not have considered visiting, Ratcliffe said.

The new route also has interest from outside the business community in St. Louis. Behija Fejzic was at the airport to pick up her mother who was traveling back from Bosnia.

“I’m just excited to see her and it’s really awesome that she doesn’t have to struggle with the language barriers having to connect through different cities,” she said. “One connection makes it a lot easier.”

Fejzic a travel agent who lives in St. Louis, said the non-stop flight from St. Louis to Frankfurt significantly cuts down on how long it takes to travel there. Before this option, a trip to Sarajevo would mean multiple connecting flights, she said.

“You’re basically traveling for a whole entire day,” Fejzic said. “This is just going to be so much easier.”

Other locals agree.

“Years ago we used to be able to do two legs to get to Europe,” said Ballwin resident Matt Mercurio. “We’d go to Atlanta and then straight to Prague. In the last couple of years we’ve had to go to Chicago or New York or some other city, then Amsterdam, then to Prague.”

He was at the airport Wednesday to welcome his in-laws who are from the Czech Republic.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Iva Pecholdova, of Liberec, Czech Republic, is handed a rose by her grandson Joseph Mercurio, 7, on Wednesday after deplaning a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt, Germany at St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Today marks the first day the airline will begin direct service to and from St. Louis.

“I hope the region really supports this because it’s a big deal,” Mercurio said. “It hasn’t been like this since TWA. It’s a big deal if we can keep an international terminal here.”

Many of the upcoming flights are already essentially full, Fejzic said. At A.M.E. Travel Services, Fejzic said many of her clients want to take this flight, but it’s only offered on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

“It’s pretty much sold out, especially departing from St. Louis,” she said. “We’re at the point where we’re doing premium economy because the economy seats are being booked very quickly.”

Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio. He previously covered the Metro East.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.

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