FORT LEONARD WOOD — Passenger counts at the Waynesville-St. Robert Regional Airport were down from February through October of 2019 compared to the previous year.
That’s despite a new airline coming in and upgrading the departing planes from eight-seat propellor planes to 30-seat jets.
When Nashville-based Contour Airlines replaced Massachusetts-based Cape Air, local officials were confident it would improve and expand service. But it’s taking a bit longer than expected for that to come to fruition.
“We’re very happy with the numbers out of Fort Leonard Wood,” said Matt Chaifetz, CEO of Contour. “We are in it for the long haul, and the start has been good. Right on target.”
Chaifetz declined to provide passenger counts on Contour to St. Louis Public Radio. But George Lauritson, mayor of St. Robert and chairman of the airport board, said that he saw numbers through the end of October.
“They were off about 100 to 200 passengers compared to the same time period when Cape Air was running the flights,” Lauritson said.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the Waynesville-St. Robert Airport has served between 7,000 and 9,000 passengers a year over the past eight years, making the dip of 100 to 200 passengers a decline of less than 2%.
Still, hopes were high that Contour would help the airport cross the threshold of 10,000 passengers a year, which would help qualify it for more federal grant money.
“I still think we’ll get there,” Lauritson said. “The numbers were down, but some things have happened that are moving in the right direction.”
Those include Contour signing a baggage-transfer agreement with American Airlines in October. That means passengers flying out of Fort Leonard Wood to St. Louis and connecting to an American flight will have their bags transferred to the next plane.
Previous to the agreement, and still on any other airline besides American, passengers have to collect their bags and then take them to the connecting airline’s baggage check.
Also, Contour added extra flights in late December and early January to accommodate soldiers leaving base for break and civilian passengers traveling for the holidays.
“Those extra flights were full,” Lauritson said. “I’d bet between the American deal and those flights, the 2019 number will be up. Not 10,000, but up from 2018.”
There have been growing pains. While the planes are bigger and nicer, they do require more terminal space that did not exist.
“The two cities, with the help of a state grant, were able to put in those temporary terminals,” Lauritson said. “And we’re doing a study to expand and have a permanent terminal built.”
Lauritson said he is still optimistic about the future.
“We’re very pleased, although we are working through some issues. We would like to grow the airport. Possibly flights to other places, we’re still in the early phase. We’ve gone about three years now trying to get a jet, and we’ve got that,” Lauritson said.
Contour’s agreement runs through September 2021. Between now and then, the FAA-subsidized flights from Fort Leonard Wood to St. Louis are capped at 12 per week. But under a new agreement, more flights could be added and possibly another destination.
“We would like to expand service if there is a market for it,” said Chaifetz. “For now, we want to make sure the flights we have are run well and serving as many passengers as possible.”
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