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What's The Deal With Airport Privatization In St. Louis?

St. Louis Lambert International Airport. August 2018
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo / St. Louis Public Radio
In June 2018, the City of St. Louis hired consultant group FLY314 to explore the privatization of St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Producer's note: In this program, a caller who identified themself as Dominique may have been an airport privatization spokesman who shared their comment under a fake name. St. Louis Public Radio reporter Corinne Ruff looked into the validity of this call, and her reporting on the story can be found here.

For more than a year, city officials and an army of consultants have been exploring the possibility of leasing St. Louis Lambert International Airport to a private entity. 

Conversations about leasing the city’s largest public asset began during former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s time in office. But the official exploration process started in June 2018, when the city hired a consultant group called FLY314, a subsidiary of Grow Missouri Inc. The political action committee is funding the effort thus far. 

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske explored where things stand and what happens next with St. Louis Public Radio reporter Corinne Ruff. 

“Right now, what's been happening is several meetings [about] sort of preliminary negotiations with airlines. So they have to make sure that most of the airlines are on board with this before they even continue the process,” Ruff said. “There's also just finalizing all of the legal jargon that has to go into a [request for qualifications] to make sure that this is actually what the city wants.” 

Alderwoman Cara Spencer (at left) and St. Louis Public Radio reporter Corinne Ruff joined Thursday's talk show to discuss the potential privatization of St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Alderwoman Cara Spencer (at left) and St. Louis Public Radio reporter Corinne Ruff joined Thursday's talk show to discuss the potential privatization of St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Alderwoman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, also participated in the discussion. She’s an outspoken critic of the current process and cited the failed privatization of Stewart International Airport in New York as one of the reasons why. When that airport’s private operator, National Express (NEG), pulled out of the contract, it “cost taxpayers of New York $75 million to get out of that privatization,” Spencer said.

“That is the only airport on mainland United States that has gone private, and I'm very concerned that the city of St. Louis could find itself in a very, very similar situation,” Spencer said on Thursday’s program. 

Ruff explained that proponents for privatization see an opportunity for a private operator to come in with some efficiencies, cut costs, improve concessions and redevelop some of the surrounding land. 

But she added that from a financial perspective, the airport has been improving. 

“The director of the airport has said it's the best passenger traffic since 2000 … [Lambert has] seen improvement in terms of passenger growth, more flights have been added; Southwest [Airlines] is really the big hub here now. And then we've also seen Darlene Green, the comptroller, just refinance the bonds – sort of the debt for the airport – [and] save the city more than $29 million.”

Spencer said a concern many residents have is the lack of transparency and limited opportunities for public input.

Ruff added that many of the conversations have been happening in closed sessions, but that there have been sporadic neighborhood association meetings where consultants have heard from residents.

“They don't have plans for more yet – although they have said if a [request for qualifications] comes out, that'll give them a bigger platform to have more meetings,” she said. 

Listen to the full discussion: 

Producer’s Note:

We attempted to get representatives of FLY314 and the city to talk about the airport privatization process. Last week, we were told someone from the city would come on the show. Earlier this week, we were informed there was a scheduling conflict, and no one would be available. We’ve been assured that 19th Ward Alderwoman Marlene Davis, chairman of the Board of Aldermen’s Transportation and Commerce Committee, as well as St. Louis Deputy Mayor for Development Linda Martínez will join us early next month.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.