Published in September 2015 issue

Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (STL) has gone through some rough times: Airline De-Hubbing military reorganization, a devastating tornado. but this Mid-American Airport with a rich aviation history is bouncing back.

By PJ Fiske

Under  the leadership of Rhonda -Niebruegge, STL has seen strategic increases in traffic, incorporated new sustainability oriented technology, and won awards for crisis response, environmental achievements and customer service.

“I was on the job 13 months when the tornado hit on the Friday of Easter Weekend in 2011,” Hamm-Niebruegge said. “When we re-opened the airport, just 36 hours later, we knew people were paying attention. We decided to keep that momentum going while we had the audience.”

That decision would be key to Lambert’s re-birth. With the recent completion of a master renovation project, seven years in the making, this is Lambert’s moment to shine.


Lambert-St. Louis International Airport was named after Alfred Bond Lambert, an Olympic golfer, St. Louis-area aviator, and founder of the Aero Club of St. Louis. His father led the Lambert Pharmaceutical Company, the original makers of Listerine mouthwash. In 1925, the younger Lambert bought the land for nearly $70,000 of his own money. A part of his acquisition was a one-time balloon-launching base where the touring Wright brothers had shown off their flying machine in the early years of the century. In 1910, President Teddy Roosevelt had flown over the field as a passenger on a demonstration flight, the first time a president had flown in an airplane.

In 1928, Lambert sold the land to the City of St. Louis for the same price he paid for it. Development continued for the next two years, with runways paved and facilities built, and STL became one of the first municipal airports in the United States.

Over the years, the airport chalked up an array of distinctions. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh stopped there on his way to the historic, first-ever New York to Paris flight—and his association with the airport was much deeper than that. Lindbergh had been a flying instructor at the field two years earlier and was later hired by the Robertson Aircraft Company as chief pilot, to carry air mail to Chicago. That route was a precursor to American Airlines (AA).

In 1929, STL became the first airport equipped with an Air Traffic Control System—using flags to communicate with pilots. The first transcontinental air-rail passenger service, named Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), originated at STL that same year. TAT later became Transcontinental & Western Airlines, or TWA.

The Navy’s first jet fighter—the Phantom—was produced at Lambert. The airport was one of the first with jet service, utilizing the Boeing 707 in 1959. It was where the Mercury spacecraft, which took astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn into space, was produced.

The airport grew over the decades, becoming a hub for both Ozark Airlines (OZ) (1960s–1980s) and TWA (1982–2001). Following TWA’s acquisition of Ozark in 1986, Lambert International became a dominant and strategic hub for TWA (TW), which, at its peak, offered over 420 daily domestic and transatlantic flights to over 100 cities, until American acquired TWA in 2001.

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After 9/11, demand dropped at many of AA’s hubs, including St. Louis. Minor reductions began in 2001, bringing activity down from nearly 450 daily flights to under 200, with many routes transitioned to regional operations (American Eagle). Transatlantic services were downgraded to seasonal or discontinued. According to Jeff Lea, Lambert’s Public Relations Manager, American Airlines began significantly downsizing the Lambert hub in 2003, until its closure in 2010. At that time, AA was operating only 36 flights at STL to nine destinations.

“Although the airport could have started a downward spiral, it began to market itself to other airlines,” Lea said. “Southwest (WN), Delta (DL) and United (UA) reinstated some of the service that American had cut.”

The airport’s activity was further reduced by military restructuring in 2009, when the Department of Defense followed the recommendation to close the Lambert Air National Guard base as part of the Base Realignment and Closure Program, thus ending its 85-year history with the airport, and costing the community 510 jobs.

Two years later, STL’s Terminal 1 and connected concourses were well into a $70 million renovation when the tornado hit, causing major damage.

What would become of STL? Airport officials saw an opportunity. Hamm-Niebruegge had already set out a plan and a vision for reinventing Lambert Airport and had been doing roadshows to educate community and business leaders about airport operations.

“After the tornado, a light bulb went off in people’s minds: What if we didn’t have this airport? In a way, it was a blessing,” said Hamm-Niebruegge.

Lea said that the decision was made to continue the renovation work that had started before the April 22, 2011, tornado—while simultaneously restoring and rebuilding the damaged areas. A major, poignant highlight came in 2012, when the C gates reopened, almost exactly one year from the tornado and ahead of schedule.

In 2011, the US Transportation Security Administration named Lambert ‘Airport of the Year’ for its crisis response, quality of customer service and exceptional security.

“We have even been contacted by other airports, such as DFW, to find out which parts of our response plan worked and which didn’t during the storm,” said Lea.

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Over two dozen airport employees won customer service awards in 2011 through the airport’s Catch us Giving recognition program—remarkable, given the year’s events. “We couldn’t have done any of it without the support of the city, the county and our political leaders and airport personnel,” said Hamm-Niebruegge.

After TWA went under, STL was sometimes referred to as ‘the incredible shrinking airport’. Hamm-Niebruegge said she never saw it that way. “I always thought of Lambert Airport as an incredible asset in the middle of the country.” Hamm-Niebruegge grew up south of STL. “One of the reasons I took this position was that I always believed in the airport—it didn’t always have the best reputation in the community. I wanted to change that.”

Under Hamm-Niebruegge’s leadership, the airport has formed new partnerships in the community, such as the Lambert Art and Culture Program, which connects local artists to the airport by incorporating original permanent artwork installations and rotating exhibits into the facility.

Lambert Airport has worked with nearby neighborhoods to address noise and mitigate future impact.

Customer service is a hallmark of Lambert. “As part of our overall strategic plan, we wanted to elevate the airport experience for travelers,” said Hamm-Niebruegge. “We transformed Lambert Airport from an operations airport into a service-oriented one.” The Catch us Giving program routinely bestows recognition on airport employees for a job well done. New restaurant and shopping concepts have been introduced. Last year, STL completed a major $50 million overhaul of its outbound baggage system, incorporating a state-of-the-art Explosive Detection System for faster, more efficient passenger check-in processing. To cap off the final year of renovations, the original copper roof of the historic Terminal 1 was replaced.

The new roof will naturally turn green over time, a nod to the airport’s sustainability efforts, which include food-waste processing, ‘green’ cleaning services, the use of occupancy sensors, LED lighting and upgraded HVAC systems for better energy efficiency, improved waste-reduction and recycling policies, water conservation systems, better recycling efficiency, biofuels or natural gas to operate more than half of the airport’s vehicles, two cell-phone waiting lots to improve traffic flow and reduce carbon footprint, and vehicle charging stations for electric automobiles.

True to its reputation for firsts, STL is the first airport in the country to use a bio-friendly deicing fluid called Kilfrost, which produces less greenhouse gases than traditional fossil fuelbased de-icing products and costs airlines less.

The St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association has recognized these efforts by giving the airport its Circle of Excellence Award of Merit.

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Lambert Airport remains Missouri’s busiest airport, with over 255 daily departures in 2014 to 68 domestic and international destinations at the summer peak. More than 12.4 million people used STL that year. The airport’s economic impact upon the St. Louis metropolitan area is an estimated $3.6 billion. Southwest propels 95 of those daily departures, from Terminal 2, and is number one in terms of daily flights.

“Southwest has been a terrific partner,” said Hamm-Niebruegge. “Its excellent financial model and ability to see the potential here from its own thorough analysis, along with a solid product, has helped amp up the STL experience.” Lambert’s management has encouraged WN to consider using the airport to relieve stress on its other hubs, namely Chicago-Midway (MDW).

American holds the number two spot with 31 daily departures, while Delta, United, and Frontier (F9) have steadily expanded service.

Beginning in February 2013, the airport undertook a major retail and restaurant makeover, by the Hudson Retail Group and HMS Host. Over a dozen new retail stores occupy the airport, along with numerous news, gift and specialty stores and seven new restaurants. “St. Louis is well represented with local food and gifts as well,” said Hamm- Niebruegge. A children’s play area has been added in the C concourse, along with new TSA Pre-Check facilities.

Hamm-Niebruegge said that people can come to the airport to do more than just fly out. Lambert Airport’s old B regional concourse, no longer used for flight activity, has been transformed and is now frequently rented out for large events such as Mardi Gras parties and business gatherings. Some people have even considered holding their weddings at the airport and making use of the onsite caterer.

Having overcome some great challenges, it seems fitting that this airport is in the city that is home to the Gateway Arch, a symbol of hope and courage. STL’s advancements and contributions, like those of our country’s early explorers, have been achieved by overcoming adversity, through determination and perseverance in discovery and expansion. Most of all, STL embraces the love of people and the excitement of flight.

“Lambert Airport is a better airport today,” said Hamm-Niebruegge. “When I look at how far we have come in five years, I can say that we have accomplished most of what we had set out to do. However, our work is never done.”