St. Louis Int’l Looks to Future With Master Plan Projects to Consolidated Terminals

St. Louis Int’l Looks to Future With Master Plan Projects to Consolidated Terminals
Jodi Richards
Published in: 

The master planning process is about provisioning for the future, and St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL) is a prime example of why it’s so important. Currently, the middle America airport serves 15.6 million annual passengers, but that number is expected to grow to 21 million by 2040—34% over STL’s peak in 2019. Similarly, today’s 195,000 aircraft operations are expected to reach 230,000 by 2040.

Fortunately, the growing airport received FAA approval of its updated master plan this past May. Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge notes that the new plan includes critical improvements that align with traffic forecasts, improve the passenger experience and position STL for a revival. The estimated cost to complete all of the updated master plan projects is about $3.04 billion. Proposed funding sources are general airport revenue bonds, FAA Airport Improvement Program grants, passenger facility charges, Airport Infrastructure and Airport Terminal Program grants, and Airport Development Fund dollars.

A lot has changed since STL’s last master plan update in 2012. Deputy Director Gerald Beckmann explains that the airport was bursting at the seams in the early 2000s, and then the landscape changed dramatically with the exodus of TWA in December 2001 and declining activity from American Airlines after the great recession. “Our region has gone through a lot,” he adds. “This was a significant hub for TWA and American. We’ve gone through a lot of transformations here.”


Project: Master Plan Update

Location: St. Louis Lambert Int’l Airport

Airport Owner: City of St. Louis

Consultant: WSP

Forecast & Financial Consulting: Unison Consulting

Airfield & Environmental Planning: Crawford, Murphy and Tilly

Aerial Photography: Quantum Spatial

Noise Analysis: KB Environmental

Airfield Modeling: TransSolutions

Facility Condition Assessments & Safety Risk Assessment: Faith Group

Baggage Handling System Consulting: Introba

Terminal Planning: Hirsh Associates

Environmental Planning: Lion CSG

Control Surveying & Landside Planning: Engineering Design Source Inc.

Stormwater Planning & Modeling: M3

Public Engagement: Vector Communications

Est. Cost of Master Plan Projects: $3.04 billion

Proposed Funding: General airport revenue bonds; FAA Airport Improvement Program grants; passenger facility charges; Airport Infrastructure & Airport Terminal Program grants; Airport Development Fund

Preliminary Funding: $330 million from airline partners

Master Plan Update Process: Work began early 2020; FAA approval received May 2023; FAA environmental review in process

City administration, which oversees operations at STL, considered joining FAA’s Airport Investment Partnership Program (formerly known as the Airport Privatization Pilot Program), which would have included even more change for STL. “When the city wanted to look at the privatization process, it did throw a lot of uncertainty into the scheme of things,” Beckmann recalls. That effort was abandoned in 2019.

Terminal 1, constructed in 1956, received a refresh in 2010, which mostly involved cosmetic changes. After a tornado destroyed some of that work in April 2011, another refurbishment project rebuilt and refreshed what had been damaged. The two terminals total 1.4 million square feet and 46 gates.

In subsequent years, Southwest Airlines, which operates out of Terminal 2, increased its presence and other ultra low-cost carriers began showing interest in the Midwest airport, Hamm-Niebruegge says. “Southwest has been a strong partner here in recent years and continues to grow.” In addition, legacy carriers like Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines increased service and upgraded the aircraft that serve STL. In 2018, the airport recovered to more than 15 million passengers. That growth drove the need to assess the condition and functionality of STL’s facilities, to ensure the airport could meet current and future demand.

Comprehensive Evaluation

In early 2020, the airport and consultant WSP started the process of updating STL’s Airport Layout Plan. However, it was soon determined that based on the condition of existing facilities and passenger forecasts, a comprehensive master plan update with more campus-wide improvements was more prudent. “We had to take stock of the airport and make sure that we’re in a position to meet the forecasted demand,” Beckmann says.

John van Woensel, a senior vice president at WSP, notes that the airport’s terminals, roadways and utility infrastructure have been maintained extremely well, but they have many shortfalls and issues that affect operations. A facility condition assessment with repair/replace analysis provides a clear picture of the associated costs and risks. “When you have such an old infrastructure, maintaining it requires quite a bit of investment,” he says. “We could actually point to the dollars and cents associated with it.”

After a comprehensive survey of current conditions, WSP evaluated various alternatives, considering STL’s long-term demand as well as short- and mid-term needs.

To assess the current condition of the facilities and future needs, the airport team and WSP conducted a “blank slate analysis.” It resulted in more than 20 different possible terminal configurations for more efficient and functional operations. 

“Our guidance to WSP was to look at everything,” explains Hamm-Niebruegge. She considers remaining open to all possibilities “critically important” for effective master planning.

Community and stakeholder engagement have been crucial through the entire process, Beckmann adds. That included forming a technical advisory committee, meetings with business and industry groups, performing online public surveys and holding a public open house. Two large-scale surveys of the community received thousands of responses, he reports. “I think we were really thorough in that sense.”

Over a two-year period, the technical advisory committee—made up of airline partners, airport tenants and airport staff—focused on the challenges facing STL and coming up with the best solutions. “It really was a partnering effort,” says Beckmann.

For starters, the airport was designed and constructed before current security checkpoint requirements, and is consequently in need of functional as well as aesthetic updates. Four separate checkpoints are inefficient and costly to operate from both staffing and equipment perspectives. Connecting passengers sometimes have to go through another security checkpoint, and gates and holdrooms are undersized for the size and type of aircraft serving STL. Similarly, wider concourses, additional restrooms and other passenger amenity upgrades are critical to meeting future growth.

Another driver for the reconstruction is the constraint on concession revenue opportunities, Hamm-Niebruegge says. Overall, the airport has about 3,600 acres, but it is land locked by an interstate to the south and west, and other roadway access issues to the east and north. “We don’t have any place to add new facilities, and our post security space is extremely constrained,” she specifies. “So while we’ve got nice restaurants and we’ve refreshed them with new brands and local items, we can’t grow; and we know that we’re leaving revenue on the table.”

Sketch planning and visioning sessions with STL stakeholders were followed by technical evaluations to carefully review and consider all options. From that process, the preferred terminal alternative consolidates all airlines in a single, linear terminal with up to 62 gates and retains the iconic domes of Terminal 1. Terminal 2, which has been used by Southwest Airlines since 1998, will be repurposed for yet-to-be-determined uses. 

Building Consolidation

Consolidating the two existing passenger terminals is key to the master plan update. Despite updates over the years, terminals 1 and 2 both require substantive upgrades to meet current and future demand. “Staying with a multiple terminal-type complex we’d still need to spend well over $1 billion, but the primary challenges wouldn’t be fixed,” notes Beckmann.

Multiple checkpoints across two terminals leave STL with operational inefficiencies regarding security and Federal Inspection Services, and less concessions space. A single terminal will create the connectivity that doesn’t currently exist with separate facilities and improve the passenger experience overall, Hamm-Niebruegge explains.

Roadway and parking improvements are other key elements of the plan. Currently, a lack of parking is one of the biggest sources of customer complaints. “Our garages are filling up every day, and there’s more demand,” shares Hamm-Niebruegge. “Again, we are leaving a lot of revenue on the table.”

WSP worked with the airport to develop about 30 roadway concepts to deliver landside improvements. For parking, a garage within the terminal loop is slated for expansion, and concepts were developed to accommodate existing need and future growth that fit within the constraints of the existing roadway loop. The preferred roadway component of the proposed master plan includes a variety of minor improvements with the right of way of Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) Interstate I-70. Starting just after the airport completed its master plan, MoDOT is also taking on a study about possible improvements to the interstate. Roadway access improvements are planned to be in place until MoDOT completes its analysis and defines how to best connect with STL’s preferred roadway alternative.

“The arrangement that we selected as the preferred alternative allows us to have a much better approach (both in terms of safety and ease in wayfinding) to the single terminal as opposed to multiple approaches to two terminals,” Beckmann explains. 

Requirements for cargo and support facilities are also covered in the master plan update, and were based on input from tenants, forecasted activity and industry planning standards. The airfield, while adequate in size, requires additional aircraft deicing capacity as well as updated taxiway geometry to enhance safety and efficiency, notes van Woensel. Airfield maintenance facilities are slated for expansion and relocation from a flood-prone area.

The updated program now awaits approval via FAA’s environmental review process as well as commitment of financial support from STL’s airline partners.

Meanwhile, officials announced in October that STL airlines agreed to help fund about $330 million of airport improvements. Hamm-Niebruegge explains that these projects could be considered as enabling work, however, they needed to happen whether the current terminal facilities are kept or not. A draft environment assessment has been completed, and Beckmann says the airport expects to have a determination of no significant impact from FAA by next winter.

Known as the West Airfield Program, projects include the design and construction of relocated airfield maintenance facilities, executive program management services and program management services. Aside from the advanced age of the 1960s airfield maintenance campus, it is located in a flood-prone area, putting existing buildings and equipment at risk for water damage. Its relocation will also allow for the design and construction of a new west airfield deicing pad.

Collaboration Despite Challenges

WSP’s van Woensel notes that leaders at STL were wise to keep their foot on the gas pedal when COVID-19 rocked the industry. “This city leadership and the airport had the foresight to plan for when the industry came back,” he says, noting that other airports that took a different approach are now at a disadvantage.

Jennifer Kuchinski, a WSP senior project manager working with STL, notes that forecasting passenger numbers during COVID was probably the team’s biggest challenge. While aviation has proved to be a resilient industry, planning for recovery was a difficult task, and the team relied on previous recovery examples to validate its forecast. These included 9/11 and the Great Recession, among others.

Just as the master planning process was moving forward, the COVID pandemic strained STL’s progress. “It was a challenge, but we continued to work through it,” recalls Beckmann. With record passenger growth up to that point and an eye toward the future, STL officials anticipated that once passengers returned post-COVID, the airport would quickly return to 2019 numbers and continue to grow at an annual rate of 2%.

Looking ahead, van Woensel notes that collaboration among the wide collection of stakeholders throughout this planning process bodes well for STL and its future growth. “The business community was ready for change at the airport; and the residents of the city understand, are aware, were involved and participated in the process,” he elaborates. “City leadership was ready, and the senior staff has been constant and stable. As a result, it isn’t just a master plan. It’s a plan that then got legs.”


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