Article Courtesy The Alton Telegraph
EAST ALTON — More than 70,000 flight operations yearly and approximately 500 jobs make St. Louis Regional Airport a major player in the area’s economy.
And that doesn’t include its role as a reliever airport for the entire St. Louis region.
The airport was recently named “Reliever Airport of the Year” by the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Division of Aeronautics, but there is a lot more to the airport than a place to park airplanes.
“We’re very proud of the airport here,” said Dave Miller, director of aviation. “We don’t lust after it, but it’s nice to get that kind of recognition.”
He noted that most of the competition came from reliever airports in the Chicago area.
The airport itself is part of a taxing district that includes Alton, East Alton, Wood River, Bethalto, Roxana, South Roxana and Hartford. Its seven-member board includes four members appointed by the mayors of Alton, East Alton, Wood River and Bethalto, and three members appointed by the county because the other communities have populations of less than 5,000.
The airport’s budget ranges between $3 million and $4 million annually, depending on capital improvement projects. The operations budget is about $2 million annually.
The district receives about $300,000 in property tax revenue each year, with the owner of a $100,000 home paying about $12 annually. Miller said most of it is used to match federal and state funding for construction projects.
Most of the time the U.S. Department of Transportation pays 90 percent of the costs, with the state picking up an additional 5 percent.
“For about $50,000 in property tax money, we can flow a million dollar project into the airport,” he said. “That’s the real payback to the community, providing some good, high-paying construction jobs back into the local market.”
The airport opened in 1946. Today it includes about 2,600 acres.
St. Louis regional plays an important role in the region’s air traffic.
As a reliever airport it fills two roles. The first is taking smaller personal and corporate aircraft out of the way of larger commercial airplanes.
St. Louis Regional is home to about 140 aircraft. Almost all of them are smaller personal aircraft, with about a half-dozen corporate planes.
“Once you get to the Lambert-sized airport, you get to the point where bigger airplanes and smaller airplanes don’t mix,” he said. “If an aircraft is coming in for a landing, it doesn’t make any difference if it’s a 757 with 200 people on board or if it’s a Cessna 172 with two people on board, it’s still going to block that airspace.”
There also are issues as the aircraft maneuver on the ground.
“If a 737 starts its engine when a 172 is behind it, it’s going to flip that 172 over,” he said.
The other role is to provide a space for larger planes to land in an emergency.
“We can take any airplane that’s ever been built,” he said. “If a weather front comes through, crosswinds at Lambert (St. Louis International Airport) can get out of limits. If they don’t have the fuel to divert to Chicago or Indianapolis, they can come over here. A couple times I’ve looked out and all of a sudden there are 13 airplanes out on the ramp.”
Aircraft have the option of simply waiting for weather to clear and taking off for Lambert, or offloading passengers, who would then be taken by bus to the St. Louis airport.
Another advantage the airport has is the orientation of its runways.
“All four of those airports are pretty much in a straight line against the prevailing winds, so that means air traffic control has to protect the airspace of all four airports,” Miller said. “If a deer goes across the runway or someone has a blown tire, then that disrupts the patterns of the other three.”
The airport is also popular with military aircraft out of Scott Air Force Base, and has been used as a primary landing site in the past when the base’s runways have been under repair — and is also used for training, especially “touch and go’s” where the aircraft starts to land, then pulls up.
Another reason it is popular is the airport has three separate instrument approach systems, two of them being antiquated.
Miller wanted to get rid of them, but base officials asked to keep them because in some developing nations those systems are all that are used.
In addition to the business park along Illinois 111, the airport has leased property for several businesses on Illinois Route 143, including QuikTrip, Arby’s, Ace Hardware and Liberty Bank.
“It is a public airport, but we do have a lot of private sector business on the airport,” Miller noted.
There are approximately 500 jobs on airport property, with West Star Aviation, a major repair and overhaul facility for corporate-sized aircraft, accounting for about 350 of those, Miller said.
The airport also has a potential future development site in the former Wayside Estates north of Illinois Route 111.
The airport took over that property after an FAA sponsored noise study showed sound levels were too high for residential, but OK for commercial and industrial development.
G.J. Grewe, a St. Louis-based company, has been working on developing commercial property at the site.
Miller said the company is “keeping it very close to their vest,” and it would probably be at least a year before anything happens on the site.
The airport is sometimes criticized because of its status as a taxing district, but Miller said much of that is from people who do not understand just what they do.
“Even though you may never come to the airport, there is a benefit to having the airport here,” he said.