St. Louis’ new nonstop flight to Frankfurt has some asking 'Where next?'
Last month’s launch of nonstop service between Frankfurt and St. Louis brought a global connection to the region that businesses and other organizations had been craving for years.
Lufthansa’s service to St. Louis Lambert International Airport fills that void, and now the airline is enjoying significant success from the route, said Tim Nowak, executive director of World Trade Center St. Louis.
“The leadership shared with us that the June and July flights are fully booked,” Nowak said. “These are their words: This has been the most successful launch of a new market in memory.”
And now some business leaders in the St. Louis region have their sights set on replicating it in another nonstop international route.
“My first reaction when I learned about the Frankfurt flight is that St. Louis is going global,” said Edùardo Platon, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis. “We can really connect with a major hub in Europe, in Germany, and with that same mindset we can have a major hub fly to Latin America.”
Platon, a native of Brazil, said a direct connection between St. Louis and São Paulo or Buenos Aires could be just as beneficial as one with Frankfurt. Between the two options, he said he would prefer São Paulo because of that city’s more than 22 million people and existing status as a South American hub for technology, finance and especially agriculture.
The U.S., Brazil and Argentina are among the biggest producers of soybeans and corn, along with many other crops, said Carlos Hirsch, chief business development officer for Eiwa, a South American Ag-tech company. He explained these regions have many agricultural similarities.
“If you’re a startup in St. Louis or the Midwest in agriculture, you have to be thinking your next step after being successful here,” Hirsch said. “You have to go to South America. Same thing from companies in South America.”
Existing St. Louis-based agriculture or related companies like Bayer, Bunge and Nestlé Purina already have strong connections between North and South America, he said. And the South American agriculture industry is set to rapidly expand in the coming years, Hirsch added.
“Most agriculture companies that are global companies, they have their plans for different regions,” he said. “A lot of them are now putting special teams for Brazil alone just because of the growth it’s going to experience.”
On top of this, various places in the Midwest like St. Louis are competing to attract talent and companies focused on ag tech, Hirsch said.
St. Louis can capitalize as Brazilian companies look to expand their operations in the U.S., Platon said. But it’s much more difficult without having a direct flight, he said.
“They don’t know much about Missouri,” Platon said. “But it makes a lot of sense when you’re expanding your business overseas to go to a region and a city with low cost of doing business, low cost of living and an excellent logistical hub.”
It takes at least two flights and nearly a full day of travel to get from St. Louis to Brazil or Argentina, he said. The closest direct flight leaves from Chicago.
“If we are as a region thinking about attracting new people, attracting students, expats to come here,” Platon said, “if we make the accessibility piece easier and cheaper, that is a big incentive right there.”
But bringing new service to Frankfurt took years of planning, research, data collection and analysis to build confidence that it would be successful, said Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, Lambert’s director.
She explained most U.S. airlines prioritize expanding routes to their established hub airports, which don’t include St. Louis. European airlines are considering routes to mid-size cities though, Hamm-Niebruegge said.
“It is a game-changer, and it is also a risk,” she said. “They know coming into these markets like this that a lot of people have loyalties on legacy carriers, and they may not switch those loyalties even for a nonstop.”
A new nonstop route required guarantees that businesses in the region would support it and that there were existing leisure passengers who would fill up the rest of the plane, Hamm-Niebruegge said.
“You have to prove to the carrier that there’s support from the business community, that there’s support from the rest of the local community,” she said.
This wouldn’t be a problem for Hirsch. He lamented how complicated flying between St. Louis and South America has become, a journey he makes several times a year.
“This week, I was looking at some tickets for the next couple of months, and it just got worse,” he said, adding one recent option had him flying to New York’s LaGuardia only to take a cab to connect to a flight from JFK to São Paulo.
Even with this, St. Louis won’t have a new international flight immediately. The priority at Lambert is to continue supporting the Frankfurt flight and eventually get it to run five or seven days a week, up from the three it currently operates, Hamm-Niebruegge said.
A spokesperson for Lufthansa could not immediately be reached.
“We know there are other carriers watching the success of this flight, and that too is critically important,” Hamm-Niebruegge said. “If our region continues to grow and the need for business and leisure continues to be strong, then you can take a look and see what other markets make sense.”
Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.