Struggling Illinois airport chases federal funds in hopes of a lift

MidAmerica St. Louis Airport, seen here on Dec. 3, 2015, has struggled to attract and maintain commercial air service.
MidAmerica St. Louis Airport, seen here on Dec. 3, 2015, has struggled to attract and maintain commercial air service. McClatchy

The federal government spent tens of millions of dollars to build MidAmerica St. Louis Airport two decades ago, but in recent years has not been as willing to help the struggling facility promote new air service.

The airport applied for three U.S. Department of Transportation grants totaling $525,000 in each of the past three years to attract more flights to its underused terminal.

Those efforts were not successful, but the grant applications, which the airport did not previously publicize, detail the ambitions of the facility’s supporters to build traffic at an airport that has been the subject of repeated news stories casting doubt on its value to taxpayers.

Rather than serve as an overflow airport to relieve the once-congested Lambert-St. Louis International Airport nearby as was originally envisioned, MidAmerica’s supporters pitched it as a lower-cost alternative in an era of higher fares and reduced service due to airline industry consolidation.

MidAmerica officials told the Transportation Department that with federal help, they could keep Illinois passengers from driving across the Mississippi River to Lambert Airport and could even attract some Missouri passengers.

“As airlines continue to cut capacity at Lambert Airport, and as fares at Lambert continue to rise,” read a proposal by the airport in 2013, “MidAmerica’s fare relief will become more critical to the region’s overall economy.”

In a 2015 proposal, the MidAmerica’s boosters pitched the airport’s proximity to offices in downtown St. Louis, even though Lambert is 10 miles closer.

The airport didn’t get the grants. But its passenger traffic is growing, thanks in part to incentives that its sponsors provided its sole commercial carrier, Allegiant Air.

The low-cost airline, based in Las Vegas, had used the airport from 2005 to 2009 and resumed service in late 2012.

Any airport that boards 10,000 passengers in one year is eligible to receive $1 million in Federal Aviation Administration funds for improvements.

Allegiant specializes in flying to underused airports, often in smaller cities. Those airports often waive landing fees and offer other incentives, such as funds to market the airline’s service. MidAmerica has paid $30,000 to promote each destination Allegiant serves from the airport: Las Vegas and three cities in Florida.

Allegiant will add a fourth Florida destination in June.

“Allegiant has delivered passenger traffic through that white elephant,” said Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant in Evergreen, Colo. “No other traditional airline would get within a galaxy of serving the place.”

Boyd had advised Illinois against building the airport. But he said Allegiant was a good partner for the facility. The airline needs a low-cost airport and the airport needs the passengers.

“Allegiant is an asset for any airport, simply because it generates passenger volume that would not be there otherwise,” he said.

Still, MidAmerica posted operating losses of $9.1 million in 2013 and $9 million in 2014, according to annual reports the airport is required to file with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Neither the airport’s director, Tim Cantwell, nor two county officials prominently involved in the airport’s management could be reached to comment.

Allegiant has delivered passenger traffic through that white elephant. No other traditional airline would get within a galaxy of serving the place.

Mike Boyd, aviation consultant

A coalition of the airport, St. Clair County and two local business groups tried three years in a row to get a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Small Community Airport Service Development Program to promote expanded service.

In 2013, the airport had only one Florida flight and envisioned expanding to serve more destinations there, as well as to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

The airport’s pitch conceded that Allegiant was losing money on the one flight it had to Florida but that the carrier made up for it by charging ancillary fees.

Allegiant charges low fares: In some cases, less than $40 each way. Passengers pay fees for just about everything: checking bags, printing boarding passes, paying with credit cards and drinking in-flight beverages.

The group sought $200,000 in 2013 and 2014 to waive landing fees and pay for marketing campaigns for Allegiant flights. The group offered $50,000 in local matching funds each year.

The airport sought another $125,000 last year to bring in a new carrier, Ultimate Air Shuttle, with $30,000 in local matching funds. Unlike Allegiant, which is focused on leisure travelers to Las Vegas and Florida, Ultimate Air Shuttle is an all-charter operation focused on business travelers.

Rather than focus on the Southwest as in the 2013 pitch, last year’s plan was to provide nonstop service from the St. Louis area to cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati and Louisville by March 2016. Again, MidAmerica lost out.

The federal grant program is competitive, and the department typically receives two or three times as many applications as it can approve.

Another small Illinois airport, Quad Cities International in Moline, received $500,000 from the federal program in 2014 to start a new direct flight to Washington Dulles International. Its application included letters of support from Illinois members of Congress and the state department of transportation. It even had one from then-Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.

MidAmerica’s 2014 grant application received a letter of support from Sen. Dick Durbin.

29,000 Boarding passengers at MidAmerica Airport for the year ending in October 2015.

The FAA gives the airport an incentive to lift its numbers: Like any airport, it is eligible to receive $1 million in annual funds for improvements as long as it boards 10,000 passengers a year. MidAmerica’s passenger count has met or exceeded that threshold since commercial service resumed.

Still, its boardings are a fraction of Lambert’s: 29,000 for the 12 months ending in October, versus 3 million for the larger airport 30 miles to the west in Missouri.

The biggest user of MidAmerica’s runway isn’t a commercial airline but a notable next-door neighbor: the U.S. Air Force. MidAmerica is jointly operated with Scott Air Force Base, and the airport’s presence has been credited with saving the base from closure.

Since Allegiant doesn’t fly out of MidAmerica every day, the 50,000-square-foot terminal is often quiet, with no bags moving on the carousel, no ticket agents at the counter and no passengers waiting to board at its two gates.

Tom Reich, an aviation consultant in Dulles, Va., said Allegiant’s customers were infrequent fliers, those who didn’t collect miles, weren’t familiar with airport screening and hadn’t signed up for the Transportation Security Administration’s Pre-Check program.

“Allegiant passengers are a lot of times people who have never flown before,” he said.

Such passengers like airports that are small and uncongested, easy to get to and easy to navigate. MidAmerica is convenient to a local interstate highway and offers free parking. It is a short walk to the terminal and an even shorter walk to the waiting area.

There are no long waits to pass through security and no maze of passageways to alphabet-soup concourses.

When Allegiant passengers arrive at their destinations, they are arriving at often secondary airports in a primary market: Sanford, Fla., for Orlando; St. Petersburg, Fla., for Tampa; and Mesa, Ariz., for Phoenix.

“A majority of their leisure destinations are the alternate airport,” Reich said. “Allegiant’s passenger base likes that.”

Joseph Bustos of the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat contributed to this article.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

Nonstop flights

Destinations on Allegiant Air from MidAmerica Airport

Sanford-Orlando, Fla. Thursday, Sunday

St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Fla. Monday, Friday

Las Vegas Monday, Friday

Fort Myers-Punta Gorda, Fla. Thursday, Sunday

Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Starting June 2