The on-going COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the airline industry. As a result of the significant decrease in demand for air travel in the wake of the pandemic, major airlines across the globe have reported astounding losses. US airlines announced earlier this month that thousands of airline employees would be out of work come October. Nevertheless, one small regional airport in Southern Illinois is moving ahead with plans to expand the airport’s passenger terminal.
MidAmerica St. Louis Airport announced plans to expand the airport’s passenger terminal to accommodate passenger growth. Recent passenger numbers from the airport show that the airport has not been spared from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. US Department of Transportation data indicates that 29% fewer passengers traveled through the airport this year compared to the same time in 2019. However, airport officials are moving forward with a $13 million expansion.
MidAmerica Airport's Troubled Past
MidAmerica St. Louis Airport is located in rural Illinois, roughly 26 miles from Downtown St. Louis. The airport first opened its doors in 1997. MidAmerica St. Louis Airport was built to relieve congestion at St. Louis-Lambert International Airport, which, at the time, was Trans World Airlines’ largest hub. However, the airport did not record substantial passenger numbers until 2013, 16 years after opening to the public. The lack of passengers at MidAmerica Airport can be attributed to two events.
The first event that would impact MidAmerica Airport’s ability to attract passenger airlines was TWA’s collapse. TWA merged with American Airlines in 2001. As a result of the merger, St. Louis-Lambert International Airport witnessed a significant decrease in passenger traffic. The second event that prevented growth at MidAmerica Airport was the construction of a fourth runway at St. Louis-Lambert International Airport. Both the collapse of TWA and the addition of a fourth runway at St. Louis’ primary airport drastically reduced congestion woes. With congestion no longer a concern at St. Louis-Lambert International Airport, MidAmerica Airport would spend most of the next decade without passenger flights.
From 1997 to 2012, several failed start-up airlines served MidAmerica Airport. Allegiant Air also served the airport from 2005 to 2009. Allegiant’s flights at MidAmerica ended in 2009 due to decreased demand in the wake of the Great Recession and subsequent global economic crisis. However, in 2013, Allegiant returned to the airport.
Today, Allegiant serves 11 destinations from MidAmerica Airport. Six of the 11 routes at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport are operational year-round. In 2019, the airport logged just shy of 304,000 passengers. In comparison, that same year, St. Louis-Lambert International Airport logged nearly 15.9 million passengers. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, passenger traffic at MidAmerica Airport is down approximately 29% on the year. Based on current data and passenger trends, the airport is projected to see just 107,000 passengers in 2020.
Additionally, IATA reports indicate that passenger air travel will not recover to pre-COVID levels until 2023. Despite a decrease in passenger traffic and years until air travel is expected to return to normal, MidAmerica Airport is moving forward with plans to expand its passenger terminal at the cost of $13 million.
MidAmerica Airport Terminal Expansion
The current terminal at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport features just two gates. Each gate is equipped with a passenger jetbridge and can serve most narrowbody passenger aircraft, including the Airbus A320 Family and Boeing 737 Family of aircraft. Additionally, one of the terminal’s two gates can serve widebody aircraft. Inside the passenger terminal, the airport features a single security checkpoint. There are two baggage carousels for passenger luggage located in the arrivals wing of the terminal.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, passengers had voiced concerns about terminal overcrowding. One aspect of the passenger experience at the airport that was subject to significant overcrowding was the TSA security checkpoint. The airport has echoed these concerns adding that checked baggage screening had also become quite congested. The terminal expansion is designed to relieve overcrowding at the airport and accommodate increased passenger traffic.
The terminal expansion plans will not only address crowding at the airport but also projected passenger growth. The expanded terminal will also feature an additional two passenger gates with four passenger gates available to tenants upon completion. All passenger gates will include passenger jetways. The expansion will increase TSA screening capabilities by relocating and expanding the passenger screening area. Checked baggage screening equipment will also be relocated out of the view of passengers. Other improvements include expanding the concessions area, the addition of a mother’s room, and ADA improvements.
In MidAmerica St. Louis Airport’s feasibility study related to the terminal expansion, the study notes that the airport requires an additional 42,000 square feet of terminal space. To finance the $13 million terminal expansion project, the airport has received a federal grant of $6.5 million. The airport told the Belleville News-Democrat that the airport has received a total of $10 million in grants for the project. Additionally, $3 million in tax revenue from St. Clair County, the county in which the airport is located, will go towards the project.
According to St. Louis’ local NBC-affiliate, construction on the terminal expansion will begin in the coming months. Construction is expected to take about a year.
The Bottom Line
Despite layoffs, decreasing passenger traffic, and a bleak outlook published by IATA, MidAmerica St. Louis Airport has a far more positive outlook on the current state of commercial air travel.
The airport, which had remained vacant for the better part of the last decade, is optimistic that its sole tenant, Allegiant Air, will weather the on-going pandemic. While nearly every major organization in the air transportation industry estimates that air travel will continue to struggle for at least the next 3 years, MidAmerica Airport has secured the funding for its $13 million terminal expansion. In a press release regarding the terminal expansion project, Airport Director Bryan Johnson said that the airport “Fully expect[s] to get back on [its] growth trajectory once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed and passengers return to the skies.”