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Talking growth, privatization, REAL ID, more with St. Louis Lambert International Airport’s director

Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, thet director of the St. Louis Lambert International Airport discussed privatization, REAL ID, growth at the airport and more on Tuesday's "St. Louis on the Air."
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, the director of the St. Louis Lambert International Airport discussed privatization, REAL ID, growth at the airport and more on Tuesday's "St. Louis on the Air."

During peak air travel season this summer, St. Louis Lambert International Airport will see about 260 flights per day, with about 71 total non-stop flights. This June, Terminal 2’s E Concourse will expand by four more gates to accommodate Southwest Airlines travel. 

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, St. Louis Lambert International Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge joined host Don Marsh to discuss recent growth at the airport, REAL ID compliance, the recent spate of airline controversy and talks about privatizing the airport. 

On recent growth at the airport…

Last year, the airport saw passenger growth of 10 percent , or about 1.2 million people. This year, the airport is also seeing retail expansion and the addition of new non-stop service to Charleston, South Carolina, and Pensacola, Florida.

Hamm-Niebruegge said she thinks the airport has done a lot of improvements, but that it is difficult to change the perception of people who think of the airport in the way it used to be.

“We’ve poured $100 million into renovation of terminals,” Hamm-Niebruegge said. “They are much more light and airy now. We also have an aggressive art program, highlighting institutions and local artists and we’ve upgraded restaurants and shops.”

The airport also recently announced a new private-use lounge that will go in Terminal 2 to generate revenue for the airport. Another new restaurant may be in the works for Terminal 2.

Terminal 2 is the area of the airport that services Southwest Airlines, which makes up 53 percent of airport traffic.

Hamm-Niebruegge said that St. Louis Lambert International Airport is the largest “medium hub” airport in the country. The airport sees about 14 million passengers come through each year.

On privatization talks…

This April, the Federal Aviation Administration accepted an initial application from the City of St. Louis to enter the airport into a privatization pilot program. The only other airport that currently operates privately under this program is in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Currently, the airport is owned and operated by the City of St. Louis. The application process was paid for entirely by Grow Missouri Inc., which is backed by financier Rex Sinquefield. More details on that here.

Hamm-Niebruegge said that it is very early in the process and that the city is able to withdraw its application at any time, as has happened in New Orleans and with Chicago’s Midway Airport.

“People have to understand what privatization means,” Hamm-Niebruegge said. “We have public-private partnerships already going on at the airport, like our parking concessionaire, our news and gifts, and restaurants which are outsourced. The particular program we’re talking about where an application was filed under the FAA program was to privatize the airport under a private operator, that’s through a lease of the airport.”

The city would retain ownership of the airport, but would enter into an agreement with a contractor that would run the operations of it and gain the benefit of some of the revenues. The lease agreements normally span 40 years.

“The groups that are interested in doing this are for-profit organizations,” Hamm-Niebruegge said. “This was initially put in place by FAA to help with funding issues across the country in terms of projects needed at airports. It wasn’t well-received in the U.S. We do have one, San Juan.”

Hamm-Niebruegge said that considerations needed to be made about the airport, the tenants and the airlines themselves would have a large percentage stake in deciding to privatize.

An investor would likely pay a large, lump sum payment at the front end to the City of St. Louis and possibly additional funds later.

"Don't get too panicked about [privatization] or too overwhelmed yet."

“All of that is written into the RFP when it goes out, none of that has happened yet, we’re at the beginning of this process,” Hamm-Niebruegge said.

Conversations about privatization would include the Airport Commission, the City of St. Louis, the FAA and possibly a vote of the people, Hamm-Niebruegge said. The whole process could take 2.5 years.

“Anywhere along the way, the city can decide they could pull out of the process if they choose to do so,” Hamm-Niebruegge said. “It is a process that I share with people all the time, don’t get too panicked about it or too overwhelmed yet.”

On REAL ID compliance…

Last week, the Missouri Legislature passed a bill that gives Missourians the option for REAL ID-compliant identification. The issue had been weighing on Missourians’ minds for years and, if no bill giving the option for compliant identification had been passed, Missourians would not have been able to use Missouri Driver’s Licenses as identification in the airport security line, among other places.

As St. Louis Public Radio reported, the bill ensures Missouri residents will be able to choose between a compliant ID or a noncompliant ID, but the free voter ID will not be compliant. A compliant ID allows residents to board airplanes and get into federal courthouses and military installations come Jan. 22, 2018.

“Our state will become compliant,” said Hamm-Niebruegge. “We have been at the legislature now for three years trying to get people educated about why we need our driver’s licenses compliant. We’re grateful it did pass on this session but there’s going to be some changes as people get new ideas, until they get them all turned over and upgraded, about what can and cannot be used.”

The Transportation Security Administration is the body of government that is overseeing the process and will continue to communicate about what identification will or will not get you through the airport security line.

On recent airline controversies…

Recent scuffles between passengers and airlines, as evidenced by the doctor hauled off the United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville due to overbooking, have reached a fever pitch in recent months.

Hamm-Niebruegge, who spent the first 27 years of her career on the airline side of things, said airlines and airports are in a tricky situation.

“Right now, flights are full,” Hamm-Niebruegge said. “Everyone is running full aircraft right now, which is great. That’s great for the economy, the airlines, the airport but with that brings issues like people not getting the seat they’d like, not getting a seat at all or the seats are too small. And that builds up.

“There was a day when flying was for a limited market of people, only for the elite, and that’s not the case anymore. With the competition, there are a lot of non-experienced travelers. You put all those things together, it builds a lot people’s intensity. Unfortunately, there’s little tolerance by air carrier or airport for people getting out of control.”

Hamm-Niebruegge said it would be a good idea for passengers to reacquaint themselves with various protocols of airlines, airports, the TSA, and other entities to make sure they are up-to-date.   

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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