St. Louis: April 23, 2011 (9 a.m.) The St. Louis (Missouri-Illinois) metropolitan area is just beginning to dig out of the devastating tornadoes that struck on the evening of Good Friday. Miraculously, there appear to have been few, if any life-threatening injuries.
The St. Louis tornadoes, however, impacted interstate travel like no other tornadoes in history. St. Louis Lambert international Airport sustained major damage. The main terminal, lost one half of its windows and had major damage in the ticketing area. Concourse C, which is the busiest at the airport lost part of its roof, had damaged jet ways and is reported to have lost all of its windows on the north side. The main terminal would be readily recognized by movie-goers who have seen it featured in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (with an artificial snow cover in the middle of the summer) and Up in the Air. The main terminal was one of the most notable early modern terminal designs and was a precursor of the TWA terminal at JFK airport in New York.
At this point, local officials have even mentioned the possibility that the structure may have been compromised by the storm. Many cars in the adjacent parking structure were damaged by flying debris, which broke windows and produced body damage. Debris filled one of the major roadways between the main terminal and the parking structure (photograph). Needless to say, the airport has been closed indefinitely.
As disruptive as the tornado was to the airport and the traveling public, the closure is likely to be shorter in duration than if it had happened at about any other major airport in the nation. This is because St. Louis airport probably has the largest amount of unused capacity of any major airport in the western world.
The past decade has been characterized by serious reversals for St. Louis airport. The fate of the airport was significantly tied to Trans World Airlines (TWA) which established a hub at St. Louis airport in the early 1980s, shortly after the expansion of the air travel that occurred due to airline deregulation. St. Louis was one of the most convenient metropolitan areas in the nation from which to travel, with frequent nonstop service to all major markets in the nation, daily service to London and seasonal service to Paris. However, TWA filed bankruptcy more than once and was finally purchased by American Airlines. After the 911 terrorist attacks, when airline volumes dropped temporarily in the United States, American Airlines began scaling back operations at St. Louis airport. Now, the TWA – American hub is gone and the airport's largest airline is Southwest.
Over the past decade, the passenger volumes at St. Louis airport have dropped by nearly two-thirds. This has left much of the airport empty. Concourse A continues to be used near capacity. Concourse C, which used to be home to the TWA hub is probably the busiest, but is only partially used. There are two other concourses that are virtually empty including Concourse D, built when volumes were the highest and the older Concourse B. The damage to concourses appears largely to be limited to Concourse C, but it is serious. There is also a Concourse E, which is dedicated principally to Southwest Airlines. This concourse appears to have also escaped major damage.
All of this spare capacity gives St. Louis airport the potential for a quicker recovery than would be possible if the airport were running close to capacity, as was the case at the turn-of-the-century. It seems likely that this provides the opportunity to transfer operations to the nearly empty Concourses B and D, while longer-term repairs are made to Concourse C.
There is still the difficulty, however, of the damage to the main terminal, principally because it contains the ticketing and baggage facilities for Concourse A and Concourse B, which appear to still be usable. Access to these concourses could be expedited by prioritizing the repairs toward the west side of the ticketing lobby, which serves the Concourse A and Concourse B airlines and is closest to those concourses.
There still remains, however, the difficulty of handling the Concourse C flights. Even here however there may be opportunities for an expeditious recovery. Concourse E, the Southwest terminal, has direct access to Concourse D, though that access has not been permitted in recent years. There may be ways to relocate the ticket facilities for the Concourse C airlines temporarily to Concourse E, and to transfer the flights to Concourse D. Should the main terminal repairs proceed fast enough, a simpler solution would be the transfer of Concourse C traffic to Concourse D.
No final plan has been announced. It is also possible that the early damage reports are more pessimistic than will be revealed in the days and hours to come. However, even with its reduced volumes, the nation needs to have this unprecedented removal of one of its principal facilities quickly restored.