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Lambert brings billions to the St. Louis region. A new study shows just how much

St. Louis Lambert International Airport. August 2018
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
A new study conducted for Greater St. Louis Inc. shows that St. Louis Lambert International Airport drives 5.5% of the region’s gross domestic product. The airport is pictured here in 2018.

St. Louis’ Lambert International Airport is a cornerstone of the local economy and likely to play a key role in driving future regional growth, according to a new economic impact study released today.

The report by Kimley-Horn and Associates and prepared for Greater St. Louis Inc. finds the airport supports a total of 102,815 jobs and drives $27.5 billion in economic impact. Those figures could grow to 133,501 and $32.4 billion in 2032 respectively.

“I think a lot of us view (the airport) as, ‘Oh, I take a trip,’” said Greater St. Louis CEO Jason Hall. “But to realize how tied it is to commerce and how many of our residents rely on the connectivity from that airport for their job and livelihood, even if they never fly in an airplane.”

Put another way, Lambert today drives 5.5% of the St. Louis region’s gross domestic product, and that could expand to 7% in the next eight years. It’s a figure Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, the airport's director, finds staggering.

“When you see it in writing, it makes you realize just how far the team has come and the work everybody has done to get us to a state where we’ve grown back our passenger traffic, our revenues,” she said. “We’ve been able to get our financial situation in great shape.”

The last economic impact study of the airport came in 2013, early on in Hamm-Niebruegge’s tenure, when “things were kind of bleak,” she said.

Lambert faced challenges like those of airports of similar size and position. The 2009 Great Recession limited growth, and the loss of the TWA hub in the early 2000s meant there was a precipitous drop in the number of passengers moving through Lambert.

“Our local market today is almost the same as it was back then, it’s grown a little bit,” Hamm-Niebruegge said. “The difference was coming off all that connectivity. TWA pushed all their passengers through St. Louis. It was the only hub that TWA had for that decade or so.”

That made reestablishing St. Louis as a connecting hub with a different domestic imperative, she explained. Southwest, as a growing airline in the 2010s, became a key focus for Hamm-Niebruegge, she said.

“We knew we had to find a partner that was going to bring connecting traffic back in,” she said.

Hamm-Niebruegge said she highlighted the strength of St. Louis’ weather patterns and runway network as selling points to bring more connecting traffic through Lambert. The pitch worked, and now close to 40% of Southwest’s market in St. Louis is connecting flights, she said.

“Look at us as your opportunity to move people across the country, through the middle of the country,” she said. “The more connecting that we could bring in, the more opportunities we knew we could grow back for the market.”

Lambert has seen passenger traffic rebound with 2019 marking the airport's best year for that metric in the 15 preceding years. Hamm-Niebruegge added that the figures from 2023 appear to get back to that same level.

This resurgence is remarkable to Hall, considering how other airports faced similar challenges when airlines downsized their operations, he said. The reestablished connectivity is a reason major firms like Bayer, Bunge, Emerson and Advantage Solutions are maintaining or establishing presences in the region, Hall added.

“If we want to keep this going and be one of very few metros that I know that’s in the Midwest picking up Fortune 1000 headquarters, you have got to double down on this if we want to keep realizing the potential we have,” he said.

Along with the growth in passenger traffic, the total number of jobs at the airport directly supports has grown nearly 70% from 25,000 to 42,295, and the payroll has doubled since 2013 from $1 billion to $2 billion, according to the Kimley-Horn analysis.

The report finds that the next eight years could have comparable growth, with airport payroll increasing another $1 billion and adding another 23,085 direct jobs.

Travelers chat while looking for their departure times on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, at Lambert International Airport.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Travelers chat while looking for their departure times on Dec. 22, 2022, at Lambert International Airport. The airport is a large economic driver for the St. Louis region, and that may increase with more international destinations and terminal consolidation.

Future growth

The study estimates future economic contributions from the airport based partially on the expectation that Lambert’s Master Plan is completed, which includes a $2.8 billion plan to consolidate its two terminals into one.

The Federal Aviation Administration has begun its environmental review of this plan, which started at the end of December, Hamm-Niebruegge said. She added she anticipates the agency will find no major impacts and expects the findings in September.

“What that allows us to do then is continue our negotiations with the airlines on looking to move forward with this architectural design in completion,” Hamm-Niebruegge said. "We’re targeting to have all of that finalized in September as well.”

If everything progresses without hiccups, the new terminal, along with garage and roadway system, could be completed by 2031 or early 2032, she said.

“If there’s any doubt about do we really need to do a project like we’re embarking on, I think this study really shows that we have to set ourselves up for the future,” Hamm-Niebregge said. “We have to be able to be a partner in the overall growth of the region.

Hall agrees.

“It’s not just the airport, it’s improving the passenger experience,” he said. “This is the global front door to the region. It’s the first impression people have when they land here. We want that to be a positive experience.”

The study also points to the expansion of nonstop international service as a basis for reaching the estimated economic impact in 2032. Hall emphasized the importance of developing new international routes considering the success of Lufhtansa’s direct flight to Frankfurt and the industries that St. Louis intends to expand, like geospatial, advanced manufacturing and agtech.

“They’re by definition global industries,” he said. “You have to then have global connectivity to drive them forward. We limit our success radically if we don’t make this investment.”

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