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Thursday, Oct. 30, 2003 02:20 pm

Flight plan

American’s cutbacks in St. Louis could spell opportunity at Capital Airport

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Eric Frankl says Capital Airport could gain from American’s downsizing in St. Louis.
Job Conger

On Saturday, the passenger-airline hub in St. Louis fades to a memory as American Airlines cuts its operations at Lambert Field by nearly 200 flights a day. As part of the cutback, American will also drop six of its 10 daily flights to St. Louis from Springfield's Capital Airport.

For St. Louis, the loss of jobs and air service -- nonstop flights to 27 destinations will disappear -- is a major blow from which the city will be hard pressed to recover. For Springfield, however, American's restructuring could prove advantageous, says Eric J. Frankl, Capital Airport executive director.

"We think this will be good news for us," Frankl says. Until recently, he notes, Capital Airport lost about 70 percent of its potential passengers to St. Louis or Bloomington, but with the cutbacks in St. Louis, Lambert's appeal will fade. "We may get some of those passengers back," Frankl says.

In the past, it wasn't unusual for Springfield-area air travelers to make the 100-plus-mile commute to Lambert, but Frankl says that's changing. Part of attraction has to do with convenience: With free parking and less cumbersome check-ins, Capital is an easier airport to negotiate. "We have spent some advertising dollars down there [in the St. Louis area] to get the message out," Frankl says.

Capital and other regional airports also have been competitive with regard to price: Air travelers whose flights originate at hub airports pay a premium for the convenience of nonstop service. A baggage inspector at Capital says he recently spoke to a St. Louisan bound for Los Angeles who drove to Springfield rather than fly out of Lambert. He saved $300 by starting his flight at Capital, then continuing to LA by way of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Frankl, who became airport director in April 2002, says that with American's reduced service to Springfield, Capital will have 14 flights every weekday. "The day before 9/11, we were at 18 flights a day," he says. "We still have enough seats in the system to accommodate the Springfield activity." About 11,000 passengers fly out of Capital each month, he says.

Since American announced its cutbacks, Capital's two other carriers, ATA Airlines and United Express, have each added a fifth daily flight -- ATA's to Midway International and United's to O'Hare. Frankl says he's not actively recruiting new carriers to Capital. "I talk to the airlines regularly, some more than others," he says. "We want to let other airlines know what's happening in Springfield, but there is no urgency. Our community needs to focus on making our three carriers as strong as possible before we seek another."

So far, the numbers seem to suggest that the carriers are getting that support. For the first nine months of 2003, the number of passengers departing from Capital is up 16 percent compared with same period in 2002. And that follows a 50 percent increase in 2002 compared with 2001.

Even as St. Louis is talking about mothballing one of its concourses, the Springfield Airport Authority is pushing ahead with capital improvements to its facility. Just last week, the authority approved bids for a $230,000 renovation of its terminal's flooring. It's only the latest in a series of improvements that have included a complete renovation of restroom facilities and a parking-lot upgrade.

"Our mission is to do anything that will increase customer convenience," Frankl says.

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