Last Wednesday, airport officials gave an update to the ongoing Airport Layout Plan (PDF). The presentation included a “preferred” plan, as well as some other options that could potentially be done to renovate the airport to more modern standards. Those plans included options to keep both T1 and T2 or consolidate everything to T1.
The preferred plan would include building a new sixty-two gate terminal on the site of T1. The only part saved would be the upper level that includes the iconic arches. In this scenario, the current T2 would be either torn down or repurposed for some other use. The plan would also include reconfiguring some taxiways as well as reworking the roadways and parking lots around the terminal.
The airport has been doing layout plans about every decade with the last one being in 2012. That one didn’t lead to any changes being made, so why will this one be different? The current airport, most notably T1, is at the end, and probably past, its practical lifespan and needs to be replaced. At times the roof leaks when it rains, and it has been patched together just to keep it operational. I wouldn’t be surprised if the airport is to the point where it is spending so much just keeping up with maintenance that it would be more cost effective in the long run to tear T1 down and start over fresh. Besides the ongoing maintenance issues, the gate areas were not designed for the type of air travel prevalent today. There are more passengers per flight now than twenty years ago and hold areas are no longer large enough for the amount of passengers waiting to get on each flight.
During the presentation Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, stated that Southwest Airlines is beginning to get pretty stretched out in T2. From gate E4 to E40 it is approximately 4/10ths of a mile. Adding the next bank of gates would push it to half a mile. That is probably as far as Southwest would be willing to add. Someone trying to make connections when you have distances that far could start to become challenging. Southwest drives around 60% of the traffic at the airport and if Southwest is starting to have concerns, then it is time to find solution. That solution can’t be some patch job like things have been since the TWA/AA hub left. It needs to work for all airlines but more importantly continue to let Southwest grow here.
A new terminal will allow the airport to use space and resources more efficiently. Instead of having broken up concourses where not all retail establishments can be used by everyone, passengers will now have better access to all amenities. This should lead to more amenities being put in since each will now have a larger customer base. You will see more restaurants, shops, and club spaces which in turn should make the passenger experience better. This also will mean more income for the airport to offset some of the cost of building the new terminal.
When it comes to what to do with T2, if it is demolished, there will also be plenty of options. This could include a consolidated rental car area, larger parking garage, and/or hotel. This will also increase income to the airport which will again help offset some of the costs. Whatever is put there should make use of the close proximity to the T2 Metrolink stop.
The Airport Layout Plan has the date 2040 attached but should be done before that date. Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge said that she thinks 10 to 12 years to completion is the timetable we should be expecting. That would mean a completion date around 2032. Since this is a completion date we may see some things done sooner than that date. This timeline could possibly be shortened depending on how long it takes the plan to be completed and funded. Most likely the terminal will be built in stages due to the current airport having somewhat filled back in with airlines. Not all airlines can be fit into concourse D and T2. The approach I would take is to clear out concourse A and move those airlines into concourses C/D and build out the new terminal where concourses A/B sits today. The new security checkpoints and the new west side of the terminal could be built before needing to take concourse C down. Based on the drawings, this section would have 25 to 30 gates. You could then move airlines out of current C into the new completed section and finish things off after C is demolished. This would mean you would see some of the new terminal in use a few years before the completion date.
The big unknown in all of this is cost. This is also probably going to be the biggest hurdle in getting this done. The preferred plan is going to cost at least a billion dollars. That obviously is a big dollar amount. Airport renovations in most cases have to be paid with Passenger Facility Charges (PFC) as well as fees paid by airlines, concessions, and rental cars. PFCs are a $4.50 charge on every airplane ticket you buy. There is a push to get PFCs doubled so if that happens that could help add to the money going to pay this off, but it would also add $4.50 to each ticket. Taxes can’t be raised on the community to pay for these upgrades. This is why you need the airlines on board to do any kind of big project like this. They are going to be paying a big chunk of it. It is also why having an airport with a setup that maximizes concessions and other on property income is essential to helping pay for upgrades like this. There may also be some federal funds that could come into play. How big a renovation we get will be determined by what funds are available. If it is in the billions, then we should see the one terminal setup, if it isn’t then we probably see some kind of renovation of the current two terminals, and they stay separate. Something will get done because as mentioned above the airport needs to be renovated because the current structure just isn’t going to be feasible for much longer. We will just have to wait and see which route is taken.
I had been one to defend the current setup up until the last few years. It has been functional and has plenty of gate space for airlines to expand. In my mind there was no need to spend a bunch of money on upgrades, that will raise fees, when they weren’t really needed. My opinion on that changed as Lambert has filled up more of the gates and the airport really is starting to show wear and tear. I think we have hit the point where it is no longer cost effective to keep patching up the current setup. While the preferred option would be my preference, I am open to other one terminal setups. I do think everything needs to be together in one terminal to save money on needing to have dual everything in a two terminal setup. A consolidated rental car facility should also be a priority. I have always been a fan of working something out at the North Hanley Metrolink station for a consolidated rental facility but I don’t know how feasible that would be. If this plan does come to fruition it probably makes more sense for it to take place in an expanded T2 garage. As much as an on airport hotel would be nice, I don’t see it as a must have in the new plan.
The time is right to follow through with a long term plan in renovating the airport. Hopefully the funding is there to make the preferred single terminal plan happen. Many still live in the past and look back to the TWA days to compare the now to twenty years ago. I am hopeful a new terminal can turn the page on those days and help us focus on what the airport can become and not what it was.