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An interview with Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, airport director

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 15, 2010 - As the new director of Lambert Airport, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge is the public face of a historic airport making its way through the turbulent winds of change, and she understands that part of her job is explaining that journey to local residents.

"It's important for people to understand not only a little bit about the structure of aviation and the size of our community but to really understand what our mission is,'' said Hamm-Niebruegge who will be the guest speaker Tuesday morning at the Dean's Breakfast Series of the St. Louis University John Cook School of Business.

On the job since January, Hamm-Niebruegge is no stranger to Lambert or the city. She has worked in the airline industry in St. Louis since the late 1980s, most recently as managing director of American Airlines and before that with TWA. Mayor Francis Slay appointed her last fall to replace retiring director Dick Hrabko.

The city-owned airport has 500 workers and serves more than 14 million passengers every year.

Hamm-Niebruegge, a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, was born and raised in the bootheel town of Oran, Mo. She is active in a variety of St. Louis organizations; she serves on the board of the Regional Commerce and Growth Association and as board president of the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

Here are excerpts from a recent Beacon interview with Hamm-Niebruegge:

You recently announced a $50 million facelift to improve the passenger experience at the Lambert terminal, and visitors can see that construction seems to be already under way. What is your long-range goal for the airport?

Hamm-Niebruegge: We're trying to put together a marketing strategy over the next one to five years that says how we market Lambert based on the economy, based on the size of city we are, based on the space availability we have.

It's an easy airport to sell in terms of the operation and capacity. We have a strong completion factor with the four runways. The weather typically year-round here is very good. That's a piece of the marketing program that's very easy to sell.

The second piece is price competitiveness because in the industry today, as dysfunctional as it is, all the airlines are looking at prices. Especially when you get out of markets that have 8 million or 10 million people that by default you're going to have big operations. But you start getting into markets where it's 2 million to 3 million people and you really start competing.

We're working on the price competitiveness. We're very competitive when we talk about our rental rates and things of that nature. There has been some talk about our landing fees that have gotten a little bit higher here because of the reduced traffic. So we're trying very hard to bring in some alternative revenue, which is the push for the cargo operation. Those are very heavy planes with a great landing weight, which brings in revenue.

The last piece is the overall experience of the airport. We are not a new terminal. We know that. There are new terminals we are competing with, but we felt it was critical that we move forward and continue the renovations so we have a pleasant experience to sell.

Retro is in these days. Can that somehow work to the advantage of Lambert, in terms of its domed main terminal that was quite the groundbreaker when it was designed in the late 1950s?

Hamm-Niebruegge: We have a very historic terminal, and we need to highlight that a little bit going forward. We highlight the architecture of St. Louis and the historic buildings we have and what that value has brought. We have the same with the airport. You want it to be a lasting impression and you want it to represent the history of Missouri.

Aviation has a lot of roots here. We'd like to try to incorporate that into the airport. That's one value of having a historic terminal versus a brand new terminal. But with that, you obviously have old buildings.

Has there been any negative reaction to the decision to donate Siegfried Reinhardt's "Flight ... An American Triumph" mural to St. Louis University?

Hamm-Niebruegge: It was surprisingly a very quiet issue. We were so pleased that SLU, with the history it has with aviation and Parks [College] -- they were very excited about the opportunity to house it there. There was a lot of concern about whether or not when we get into this renovation, would there be damage to the mural.

We'll do a bigger splash when it gets installed at SLU. They now have it. Once they're ready to showcase and unveil it, we'll have a big splash then.

What has been the biggest surprise since you took over as airport director?

Hamm-Niebruegge: The biggest surprise when I came in was how far they had gone to really pull the team together to build a marketing strategy. That is something I don't think the public has seen.

Dick Hrabko [the retiring director] had set up a lot of things to try to position the airport moving forward and really tried to step up the marketing efforts.

From a perception standpoint, what would you say to those residents who recall the "good old days" when Lambert was an airline hub -- and who complain that it used to be less expensive to fly into or out of the city?

Hamm-Niebruegge: That's a myth, actually, because we are a very competitive airport in terms of the pricing out of here. With the growth of Southwest and AirTran and Frontier, we really have brought in lower fares into St. Louis. Statistically, our fares are below average for the industry when compared to other cities. But again, sometimes it is the perception of people. So that's one thing that we're really trying to get out there.

We really think that diversifying the carriers that we have here is a stronger route to go. With a population of just around 3 million people in our area, which is how they look at the traffic, 3 million people is a good number of people to move around the country, but it's not a city of 10 million. When you look at that, trying to focus on bringing in a hub with three or four hundred flights a day is really not going to work because there's just not enough local traffic here for that kind of demand.

We know there's ability to grow, and we know there's some demand out there for specific markets. So we're trying to do a lot of market research on trying to really understand the markets that we think are underserved out of here -- both leisure and business traffic -- and try to make that pitch as we go to the airlines.

We went from being pretty much a single hub carrier with just a couple of scattered flights. Today, we have 13 carriers and a much more diversified look. When you bring that diversified look, that's when you bring in lower costs. We've done a great job of doing that, and that shows in our fares.

Again, I think it's important that we get out and spread that word. For people who have spent a great many years in St. Louis, we remember what it was. But we proved that the model with 70 percent connecting traffic and 30 percent local travel doesn't financially work for the airlines anymore -- and hasn't worked for a couple of decades. And that's the model that used to be here.

How different is it switching from the airline to the airport side of the industry?

Hamm-Niebruegge: It is such a changed industry -- it's a broken industry right now. It really is a very difficult industry to try and figure out how you can get cost and revenue to just break even, much less the profit side. I understand that very well because I spent so many years in it. I think having that knowledge and understanding helps us to be a little more forward thinking on where we actually think traffic can be attracted and how do we best take all of our efforts, as opposed to chasing wild-goose dreams.

I spent a long time with three different carriers as we integrated into each other, and so there are a lot of people I know in the industry. I think it helps to open that door a little bit because they know I understand what issues they're facing and what they're looking for. Does it give a huge advantage? Probably not. But I think it does open that door a little quicker.

You majored in German at Mizzou. How did you end up running an airport?

Hamm-Niebruegge: My goal when I went to college was to work for the CIA, and I had wanted to be an interpreter. That was my intent. Obviously, that's not the route I took. It's funny, but when you walk out of college you take whatever jobs are there at the time.

My first job was with Ozark Air Lines. They were opening up at LaGuardia (New York) in the early '80s and they had a philosophy that they only hired from the Midwest. They came and spoke on campus at Mizzou, and I said I don't mind going to New York. My thought was it would help get me closer to an international setup. And I just never left.

Airport security seems to change daily. What can we expect at Lambert?

Hamm-Niebruegge: We are in line for changes, and we work everyday with the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] as the changes come about.

One of the things we're doing in the renovation is a lot of work relocating the checkpoint between the B concourse, the C and the D. We know that we will be getting new equipment -- the full-body scanners as they roll those out across the country. We're not sure exactly when, but we need to try to retrofit to make sure we can house those and that it's the best experience possible for the customer.

It is changing, so you have to be flexible. For us, it's about making sure that we're as safe as we can be for our passengers and our employees but also making sure that the customers feel that it is not a hassle. It's an ongoing thing that you have to keep up with.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.