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Passenger totals at Lambert Airport jumped in 2022, but still lag pre-pandemic levels

Dozens of travelers wait in the Frontier Airline line after flights were delayed due to winter weather on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, at Lambert International Airport. The National Weather Service predicts temperatures will plummet from 30 degrees to near zero in the course of a few hours.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Passenger totals are climbing back to pre-pandemic levels with airport officials expecting them to be back to normal this year.

Passenger traffic at St. Louis Lambert International Airport is getting back to the levels it saw just before the coronavirus pandemic began.

In its annual report, released on Tuesday, the airport counted about 13.7 million total passengers in the 2022 calendar year, about 3.3 million more than in 2021. The 2022 total is still about 14% lower than the figure from 2019.

“While it wasn’t back to pre-pandemic levels, the bulk of that was really only driven by January and February,” said Lambert Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge.

The omicron COVID-19 variant put a damper on travel early in 2022, but that didn’t last for the rest of the year, she said.

“If we look at several months, especially in the summer, November and December, we were seeing passenger levels that were on par with 2019,” Hamm-Niebruegge said. “[2022] was the first year that we had an opportunity in three years to think about life beyond the pandemic.”

Leisure travel completely rebounded last year, while business travel still lagged industry wide, she said. But Hamm-Niebruegge expects that won’t be the case this year, with many corporate travel managers indicating curbs on business travel are over, she said.

“We’re hearing consistently that all of those restrictions have been lifted,” Hamm-Niebruegge said. “If their team feels they need to travel to have face-to-face meetings, be at a particular conference or whatever the case may be, corporations are no longer restricting that.”

An especially bright spot for the airport in 2022 was the June launch of service from St. Louis to Frankfurt, which brought back a direct flight from Lambert to Europe for the first time in two decades. Many of those flights have sold out, with the majority of seats being purchased by business travelers, Hamm-Niebruegge said.

“It’s validating what we knew all along, that this is a strong market and can be supported,” she said. “Because the numbers have been so strong, the other airlines have recognized that.”

The sustained success from this international flight is helping to drive conversations with other airlines about St. Louis’ strength as a market and where service could be expanded, Hamm-Niebruegge said.

[Read more: St. Louis’ new nonstop flight to Frankfurt has some asking 'Where next?'

Outside of passenger travel, Lambert completed a few substantial renovations. The airport decommissioned an old fuel farm and completed construction on a portion of a runway that accounts for about 40% of the airport’s traffic, according to the report. Construction to reduce the width to better accommodate current aircraft sizes on other parts of that runway will continue throughout 2023.

Lambert also posted 30% higher operating revenues while operating expenses essentially stayed flat, but Hamm-Niebruegge said that is a bit of a red herring as open positions drove some of those operational savings.

“We’re desperately trying to hire up, so that’s a tough side,” she said. “Obviously the savings we generate from the vacancies, we’d rather have the positions filled.”

Otherwise, the airport saw increasing revenues from parking and concessions returning, Hamm-Niebruegge said. Strong finances and growing passenger traffic put the airport in a position to consider significant future improvements, like a consolidated terminal, she added.

“As much as I love this terminal, it was built in 1956, and it doesn’t have some of the things that we really need to think about as we go into the future from a processing standpoint,” Hamm-Niebruegge said.

The airport has completed a master plan and submitted it to the Federal Aviation Administration. It's now moved on to an environmental review, which will last another 12 to 18 months, she added.

Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.