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By Christine Imbs

When NBC Nightly News aired its 1998 segment, “The Fleecing of America,” MidAmerica Airport was then considered the poster-child for government waste. But today the aviation stepchild of Lambert International Airport is coming into its own. And the so-called “Gateway to Nowhere” is fast becoming a “Gateway to the World.”

Located adjacent to Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County in Southern Illinois, MidAmerica started out as a joint-use airport (military and civilian operations intermingled) and planned to be the passenger reliever airport for Lambert International Airport.

The Joint Use effort provided exceptional value to the region as Scott Air Force Base survived in the recent Base Realignment and Closure Commission report. And, the MidAmerica project was the backbone to the enhancement. “If you use the ‘but for’ argument, but for the MidAmerica Joint Use project, Scott Air Force Base improvements in 1,000 new housing units, runway length, new tower, and hosting the 126th Air Refueling Wing would not happen,” says Tim Cantwell, director of MidAmerica, “That part worked, what didn’t work until a while ago was the reliever status.”

“We were operating under the business model that we were a reliever airport, but by doing this we didn’t really honor the fact that what we did was enhance Scott Air Force Base,” he says. “So we readdressed some of our strategies and came up with a new three-fold business model.”


“And with the global economy today, if local businesses don’t have the international touch, they may just be aced out of the market. It simply made sense for us to do this.”

Tim Cantwell
Director, MidAmerica Airport

That model still includes passenger service to leisure destinations such as Las Vegas and Orlando. Cantwell says this is mainly because MidAmerica can profitably support them. Also, when you have competition between airports with different airlines, the customer wins. But passenger service ranks number three in the big scheme of things at MidAmerica. The airport’s main goal is to become the best joint-use airport in the nation.

A joint-use airport basically means a military and civilian operating airport, where either civilians are on military property or vice versa. MidAmerica is unique in that it is the only airport in the nation where this isn’t the case. MidAmerica and Scott AFB are geographically separated, but connected by a 7,000-foot taxiway changed for accuracy. The military maintains the west runway and the County maintains the east runway. But they operate as a single airport. Cantwell says, “From one foot above the ground, we operate the airport together.” And with MidAmerica’s 10,000-square-foot runway, it allows military turbojet aircraft to use the east runway, as almost 60 percent of the airport traffic does everyday.

Cantwell says this runway and other improvements made because of MidAmerica have kept Scott from closing down.

“Scott Air Force Base is the number one reason MidAmerica is here,” Cantwell says, “And all of the improvements—the enhanced runway at Scott, the 10,000 foot runway, the 126th refueling wing, the housing, MetroLink—the only way they got it was to build MidAmerica.”

Cantwell says Scott’s economic impact on the region is $2.2 billion. MidAmerica receives no revenue from their Joint Use efforts. However, critics still point to the airport’s lack of passenger flights when assessing the airport’s value to the region.

“They say, ‘but we can’t fly to Boise from your place.’ So what? About 55 percent of the traffic takes off out of here,” Cantwell explains. “That’s significant use. Scott’s runway is much older than ours, if they have to close it down for repair, they have to use us. And the 126th has got to use our runway. Without us, they aren’t here. People say it’s arguable that MidAmerica saved Scott. Well I’ll argue that point.”

The second goal of the new business plan and the most lucrative one for the region is international air cargo service.

“International air cargo is non-existent in the region. What’s more, no one else in the United States is seeking international air cargo,” Cantwell says. “And with the global economy today, if local businesses don’t have the international touch, they may just be aced out of the market. It simply made sense for us to do this.”

Cantwell says some of the infrastructure tools needed for international cargo were already in place at MidAmerica — the 10,000-square-foot runway, 25 acres of aircraft parking and multimodal access. What they lacked was foreign trade zone authorization and port of entry status, a cargo facility, and customs and border protection.

The airport received Foreign Trade Zone 31 status in the fall of 2003, with about 3,800 acres at MidAmerica and 2,700 acres of
surrounding undeveloped land designated as a foreign-trade zone by the federal government. Although they had hoped to receive port of entry status, that has yet to transpire. However the airport’s user fee application was approved, and Cantwell says this is really the first step toward achieving port of entry status.

“Basically, if you’re a designated port of entry, then the federal government pays to operate and maintain the facility,” he explains. “A user free airport gives you the same quality as a port of entry airport, but the operation and maintenance of it is paid locally. What usually happens at a user fee airport is that as the pressure goes higher, it’s transformed into a port of entry.”

In October 2005, MidAmerica unveiled a critical piece of the international air cargo puzzle—a $6.3 million 50,000-square-foot cargo facility, with 10 air access doors and 37 truck docks. The facility was built for cross-docking, so minimum inventory will be kept on site. Cargo will be unloaded from the airplanes directly onto trucks. Already a private company is considering leasing 26,000 square feet of the cargo facility. With 5,000 square feet part of the foreign trade zone and an additional 5,000 square feet held by the airport for transient services, Cantwell says that would make 36,000 square feet already designated for use. “We’re also pursuing quite heavily negotiations with foreign-owned carriers,” he adds.

The final piece of the puzzle is the $300,000 customs inspection facility scheduled for completion this summer. Since MidAmerica is not looking at foreign-passenger service, this facility will be used to process the airplanes’ crews.

“You can’t have a foreign-owned airliner land without a customs facility. And because of the Fifth Air Freedom that says no carrier owned by outside countries can land in two spots consecutively in the United States, we’re essentially going to be a one stop shop for their international air cargo,” Cantwell comments.

Steve Johnson, RCGA’s Vice President of Economic Development, says he believes international air cargo “will raise MidAmerica’s profile and cement its status as a major factor in the regional transportation and distribution industry.”

“It’s difficult to replicate all they have to offer anywhere else in the country—major development sites adjacent to 8,000 and 10,000 foot runways, direct rail and interstate access, and a growing attraction to international shippers through their FTZ status and other initiatives,” he adds. “They have quickly gone from representing future potential, to being a major player today.”

Cantwell couldn’t agree more.

“We are really on to something here. There is no international cargo that flies into the region. That makes what we are trying to do
an enhancement to the region without any competition to any other livelihood or any other airport,” he stresses. “Our competitors are not Lambert or Spirit. Our competitor is really O’Hare and Dallas, because cargo has about a 500 mile influence, not just 100 miles. What we hope to do is bring value to the region through air service and international cargo.”
 

 

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Cover Story with Gregory Boyce, Peabody Energy
Frank Ewasyshn
Frank Ewasyshn, Chrysler Group

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Tim Cantwell
Tim Cantwell, MidAmerica Airport
Lester Miller
Lester Miller, Busch’s Grove
Ed Ehrenberger
Ed Ehrenberger, GENCO

 


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