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Fort Leonard Wood airport sets record after clearing 10,000 passenger mark

In 2019, potential passengers got a chance to look at one of Contour's 30 seat jets that would serve the Waynesville-St. Robert Regional airport at Fort Leonard Wood.
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
In 2019, potential passengers got a chance to look at one of Contour Airlines' 30-seat jets that would serve the Waynesville-St. Robert Regional airport at Fort Leonard Wood.

For the first time ever, the Waynesville-St. Robert airport had more than 10,000 passengers take a flight out of the facility located at Fort Leonard Wood, a goal officials have been looking to meet for years.

According to the federal U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the airport nearly doubled its passenger count in 2023 from the previous year.

The increased numbers qualify the airport for a $1 million airport improvement grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, up from the previous $600,000.

“It’s certainly been a goal that was a long time in the making, but this is just the beginning,” said Waynesville Mayor Sean Wilson, a member of the airport’s board.

The airport is already designing a new terminal slated to be built in 2026. Wilson said the extra money will help make the facilities that much more appealing.

“It’s a robust plan. It's going be a great addition, and it's really going to highlight our airport and attract more customers,” he said.

Wilson said he is optimistic about the airport’s future. But it is reliant on a federal subsidy program and a rule that some analysts call a loophole in FAA regulations.

The Waynesville-St. Robert Airport is an essential air service facility, under a federal program designed to help small communities have some kind of air service by subsidizing a single carrier that offers passenger flights.

Fort Leonard Wood is 90 miles from the next-closest airports in Springfield and Columbia.

Smyrna, Tennessee-based Contour Airlines offers daily flights to Dallas and Nashville from the airport at Fort Leonard Wood.

“It’s just not possible for an airline to make it serving airports that small without the essential air service assistance,” said Brett Snyder, founder and author of the airline industry site the Cranky Flier. “But some airlines are able to do it, including Contour.”

Snyder said that in addition to the ESA funding, Contour takes advantage of an FAA rule that allows small carriers to follow different rules than bigger airlines.

“As long as Contour flies planes with 30 seats or fewer, and because they are technically registered as a charter airline operation, they can employ pilots who are older or less experienced than other airlines,” Snyder said. “That saves a lot of money and increases their flexibility.”

Synder said Contour has also been savvy by purchasing small jets that are no longer used by bigger carriers and getting a good price for them.

“They buy these 37- or 50-seat jets no one wants anymore, but only put in 30 seats so they can operate under the more permissive pilot rules,” he said.

That plan has also led to a marketing opportunity for Contour and the airport.

“We tell people every seat has first-class legroom,” Mayor Wilson said.

Snyder said the FAA might consider changing the rule to apply only to planes with 10 or fewer seats.

“But if that doesn’t happen, Contour is well positioned to continue to increase its service at small airports including Waynesville-St. Robert,” he said.

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.