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Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge named new airport director

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 27, 2009 - Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, an airline executive with more than 25 years of experience, says she has "a passion for Lambert."

That's among the key reasons St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay announced Tuesday that Hamm-Niebruegge will become the new director of Lambert St. Louis Airport, as of Jan. 3.

She will replace Richard Hrabko, who announced in May his plans to retire as airport director after more than two years on the job.

Hamm-Niebruegge, 49, has spent most of her airline career at Lambert, a fact that Slay and others say gives her a powerful perspective as she takes over the airport's operations and direction.

She has been managing director for the St. Louis operations of American Airlines since 2002. Prior to that, she was Trans World Airlines' vice president for North American operations and manager of the St. Louis hub. She also worked for Ozark Air Lines at LaGuardia Airport in New York city.

Click here to read a Commerce magazine profile.

She said in an interview Tuesday that she became interested in Lambert's top job as soon as she heard of Hrabko's retirement plans.

Hamm-Niebruegge said she and her husband, Richard Niebruegge -- both Missouri natives -- had made a decision some time ago that they wanted to stay in St. Louis. The couple resides in Ballwin, and has three children. Her husband works for a textile import firm.

Slay, in turn, says that Hrabko alerted him of Hamm-Niebruegge's interest and strong qualifications.

The mayor said he was prepared to conduct a national search for Hrabko's successor, but believed that if a strong candidate was "in our own backyard, we should take a look."

Hamm-Niebruegge fit the bill, Slay said. Besides being well-respected and well-versed in the airline industry and culture, the mayor said "she knows (Lambert) inside and out."

Slay then sought out everal groups with interests in airport operations, including the St. Louis County executive's office, Civic Progress, the Regional Business Council and the Greater St. Louis Labor Council as well as Hrabko himself. Executives and officials at all of them were asked to interview Hamm-Niebruegge and offer their opinions.

All said she would be a good fit for the job, the mayor said.

Among them: Bob Soutier, president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council.

Soutier said today that he met Hamm-Niebruegge in his office about two months ago, and that he was impressed. "She was energetic, and she has a vision to make us a better airport in the future," the labor leader said.

Kathy Osborn, executive director of the Regional Business Council, has known Hamm-Niebruegge for years, lauded her as "pretty remarkable'' and added that St. Louis was lucky to snag her.

"She has turned down promotions to stay in St. Louis,'' Osborn said. "She knows the industry....She knows St. Louis. She knows the people. She knows the airport."

Mike Jones, chief policy advisor for St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, said Hamm-Niebruegge's hiring was "a bold and great move'' by Slay.

Instead of taking typical route of hiring someone who'd been an airport director, Jones said that Slay took the "out of the box" approach by tapping someone who had corporate airline experience.

Such a move was smart, Jones said, given Lambert's current situation.

Hamm-Niebruegge takes over the airport at a challenging time. It no longer is an airport hub, and one of the major airlines using Lambert -- American Airlines -- has downsized its operations and cut back dramatically on its flights. The airport's main terminal also is showing its age and shortcomings.

Hamm-Niebruegge noted that she also ran operations for American and TWA when St. Louis was a hub. Lambert's change in status, she said, has opened up some opportunities. For example, the reduced airline traffic has freed up space in the terminal that now has been converted into more shops and restaurants.

"It did allow us to turn the terminal into a nice experience,'' she said. "We've come a long way from what the terminal was a decade ago."

She and Slay offered effusive praise of Hrabko for his leadership at Lambert and his willingness to confront the challenges and turn them into assets. "Dick did an outstanding job out there,'' the mayor said.

Hamm-Niebruegge cited Hrabko's swift action to persuade some other airlines, notably Southwest, to take over some of the direct routes from St. Louis that American Airlines is dropping.

"That's what we need to do, going forward," Hamm-Niebruegge said.

Her knowledge of Lambert, its staff and its clients, said Slay, means that Hamm-Niebruegge will be able to immediately take Lambert in the direction it needs to go. "She will hit the ground running,'' said the mayor.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.