Up, Up, and Away, the St. Louis Way A conversation with Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, director of St. Louis Lambert International Airport

(Photo by Philip Myrtorp via Unsplash)

Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge is remarkably calm, when you think about what her job entails. For twelve years, she has presided over a major airport, one that has been a place of soaring dreams and crashing disappointments. It is an airport about which everyone has an opinion. And she has just guided it through the twilight zone of a pandemic, with its mask wars and heightened state of alert, into a master plan that will reinvent Lambert for the future.

This airport began futuristic. Its vaulted concrete roof might have quoted the Roman Baths of Caracalla, but its airy expanse and aerodynamic curves looked a century ahead. Architect Minoru Yamasaki had created a prototype that other airports would soon copy. Now, Hamm-Niebruegge has to find a way to do that again.

Before taking charge at Lambert, she held management positions with its later deserters, American Airlines and Trans World Airlines. Thus she has spent most of her career in St. Louis, riding the city’s swings between Midwestern pride and a Midwestern inferiority complex. A member of the National Freight Advisory Committee and the Airport Cooperative Research Program’s oversight committee, she gathers national and international perspectives. But she also weaves herself tightly into the life of St. Louis, serving on educational and healthcare boards, absorbing the occasional grumbling, and steadily reminding the business community that an airport is a collaboration.

 

 

St. Louis Lambert International Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge (Photo courtesy of Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge)

What role does flying, once such a miracle, play in our psyches these days?

 

I think we have all come to realize it’s part of our life, and something we don’t know how we lived without. If you go back to the early days, the skepticism of people thinking, “Can this really happen? Can we actually fly to another country?”—think about the evolution of that. And back in the fifties, sixties, seventies, it was only an elite group that could fly. Today, with the ultra-low-cost carriers, the low-cost carriers, the legacy carriers, there’s access to air travel for every citizen. It’s become a part of who we are, an essential part. To think that in some way we could ever go back is almost unfathomable to me.

 

We had a taste of that reversal early in the pandemic.

 

We did, and you could see the impact, especially on leisure travel with family and friends. Missing elderly parents, or sisters and brothers you only see once a year…. It affected how people thought about their lives, and it showed the importance of that connectivity. When the pandemic started winding down—I can’t say it’s gone—we clearly saw that pent-up demand. Even in November and December of last year, we saw really strong numbers, and this March and April, we are at 90 percent of our pre-pandemic level—which was the best we had seen In this region in fifteen years. In 2023, because we have the airport in great shape, financially and with the partnerships we have created, we think we will actually exceed pre-pandemic levels.

 

But to get there, you had to fight the mask wars….

 

The toughest piece was on board the planes, and we don’t have any jurisdiction there. But we did see it in the airports, too. When the mask mandate went into place, we put the signage up, we had the overhead announcements. It took two or three months to really get people on board. We finally got to a point where we said, “Well, then, don’t travel. Because we are not going to let you into the airport.” This year, as more and more restrictions were lifted but the mandate was still in place for airports, I’ve got to tell you, it was tough. People saying, “It’s my right! There’s no restriction!” [She sighs.] I kept telling our police officers, “I have better things for you to do than chase people who aren’t wearing masks.”

 

When the restriction was lifted, did the masks vanish?

 

No, there’s still probably 30 percent of the population says, “I’m going to wear a mask.” But those who don’t want to wear a mask no longer feel like their freedom has been violated. I think the pandemic has brought out the potential that some people will always be masked in large crowds [for health reasons]. The good thing is that now, other people don’t look at it like, “Why do you have a mask on?” Before, their first thought was, “Well, you shouldn’t be traveling then.”

 

Why do you think the reaction to the mandate was so visceral? Did people feel uneasy when they couldn’t see other people’s faces?

 

No, I don’t think it was a trust issue. I think it was more of a personal opinion, and this strong belief that you are taking away a right. The mask was one of the things that just pushed people over the edge. There were people we didn’t allow to travel. Fortunately, we didn’t have a lot of incidents. The airport is expansive, and police could just take someone aside. I felt bad for the flight attendants, locked in that cabin. Just the violence of people! It’s still mind-boggling to me, the reactivity. It was a simple ask. But this is the world we’re living in, the polarization, people not accepting other viewpoints. These last several years, it’s, “If you don’t see things my way, you are a terrible person.” I don’t know how we got there, as a country. I’d like to think we can get past it.

 

 

I think the pandemic has brought out the potential that some people will always be masked in large crowds [for health reasons]. The good thing is that now, other people don’t look at it like, “Why do you have a mask on?” Before, their first thought was, “Well, you shouldn’t be traveling then.”

 

How does the presence of an airport affect the surrounding region?

 

The economic impact is substantial. If you think about trying to grow your region and bring corporations here, especially corporations that rely on travel…. For so long, St. Louis had such prominence in the aviation industry. Charles Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight. Being first in the mail runs, first to train balloon pilots for war. In 1956, when Yamasaki was contracted to design the terminal, it became known around the world as this iconic, futuristic terminal. I don’t think people realize the significance we had with that design. The lobby, those domes—it was built thinking about the future. Back in those days, flying was for the elite, and it was glamorous. Nobody got on a plane in sweats or pajamas! But it could be—and still can be—a little tense for people nervous about flying. I’ve never had that fear, but I understand it: You are putting yourself into a tube that will move at an incredible speed, and you have no control. Yamasaki thought, How can I help people come to the airport for what might be a one-time adventure or the trip of a lifetime and not have that angst? He wanted to create a sense of calm. So he thought about big open spaces—airports were small back then—and he thought about art. He even commissioned that brilliantly colored, 48-foot long screen by Harry Bertoia, which unfortunately got trashed somewhere along the way.

Airports that are being designed today, all of them want big open spaces; all of them want art. Yamasaki saw that back in 1956.

 

So we had this cool airport, and then we had the glory days, when we were TWA’s hub….

 

And TWA was one of the largest carriers. It carried all the movie stars; it carried all the popes. The fact that it was housed here in our backyard gave St. Louis a prominence in the marketplace. So it was devastating when TWA went away, and even its purchase by American Airlines—initially, American kept us as a hub. But that transition—not only the purchase but ultimately that downsizing and dehubbing—was devastating. You talk about polarization—I felt a little bit like that when I took on this role. As hard as it was to see that hub go away, I still had the view, “We’re a critical player, so let’s find a path forward.” I remember meeting with the business leaders at the Bogey Club, and the bitterness from that community, just the overall sense of “We are not important anymore. Our airport is not important anymore.” I said to my husband afterward, “I had no idea people felt this strongly.” I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept thinking, Oh my God, what have I done? Thinking about this enormous task ahead of me. My husband said, “Quit while you’re ahead!” We were laughing about it. But I thought, I have to help people understand this industry. And we have to do this together.

 

How did you get on the right track?

 

The tornado actually helped us a little bit. I’d been here fourteen months by then, and I’d made a lot of inroads into the community, saying, “I can’t do this alone.” When the tornado hit, I started getting phone calls from CEOs all over town: “Rhonda, what do you need?” I told them, “We have people working around the clock on Easter weekend—I need food. And I need every dump truck that exists in this region.” And one by one, they said, “I’m on it. I’ve got it.” The number of people who showed up, the amount of food—it was overwhelming. And I stood back and thought, Okay. People know we have to do this together. Without that help, we never could have opened in thirty-six hours after an F4 tornado tore through.

 

In 1956, when [architect Minoru] Yamasaki was contracted to design the terminal, it became known around the world as this iconic, futuristic terminal. I don’t think people realize the significance we had with that design.

 

I still don’t know how you pulled it off.

 

I knew if we could get the power back on, we could reopen. At 7:10 that Saturday night, the power came back on. Tom Voss was head of Ameren then, and he was standing there right with me. I said, “Tom, it’s flickering.” He said, “It has to flicker to cycle through! You’re fine.” Sunday morning, we ran 70 percent of the operation.

 

What will come with your new master plan?

 

Every decade, an airport has to do a master plan; it’s required for federal funding. You have to show you are looking at the present and at the future, the airport twenty years from now. We wrapped up the new master plan this spring. Whether we act on it is up to us as a region. But a lot of our infrastructure is sixty-five or seventy years old, and it’s tough to maintain that without a lot of cost. Our lobby still works quite well, because it was designed for the future. But our concourses are very narrow, and the gates are small because they were built for planes that were only going to fly fifty or seventy passengers. And Terminal Two was never meant to be the busy terminal it is today. Southwest has grown. In the days we had the TWA hub, 70 percent of all people who came to St. Louis were connecting here. Now they are connecting with Southwest—people love connecting here. That long concourse gets to be a longer and longer walk! To connect flights and walk from E4 to E40….

For the future, people want concessions—they want choices, not just a burger versus a hot dog. In most cases, you want a unified checkpoint. It’s inefficient to have multiple checkpoints, two different terminals, two different baggage systems, not to mention a garage whose lifespan is coming to an end! So are you going to spend a billion dollars and still have two terminals, multiple checkpoints, parking that’s inefficient, and a very narrow road system coming in from the interstate?

 

If we unify all that in a single new terminal, what happens to Terminal Two, which so many of us have grown fond of? Do we tear it down?

 

Terminal Two would be repurposed. The project would have about a ten-year window: two years of negotiating with your airlines, because they ultimately pay the cost of it, and then design and construction. While it’s very doable, it’s complicated. Southwest would stay in their terminal all the way until the end. The single terminal would go up to the west. Terminal Two could be repurposed as consolidated rental car facilities, or you could put a hotel in there, or administrative offices…. You would lop off that D concourse, obviously.

 

Speaking of the future, how are we going to deal with those little eVTOLs [Electric Vertical Take-off and Landing vehicles] in the sky?

 

The Jetsons? ’Cause that’s what you think of! Will people have these personal flying cars, and how will airports accommodate them? There are tons of discussions about that in the industry. A couple airports, Dallas is one, are looking at parking pads for them. While I think it’s a ways down the road, it certainly is something we are planning for. Think about TNCs [transportation network companies] like Uber and Lyft. Ten years ago, we didn’t know what in hell a TNC was. Years ago, somebody dropped you off at the airport, you parked there, or you took a taxi. The flying cars, if you want to call them that, are just another example of how fast technology is morphing.

 

Back in those days, flying was for the elite, and it was glamorous. Nobody got on a plane in sweats or pajamas! But it could be—and still can be—a little tense for people nervous about flying.

 

Will they get in the way of the big planes?

 

There’s always the concern. Today, we have the drones. They can’t fly within five miles of a commercial airport, but periodically you will have somebody who just purchased a new drone and has no idea. Most drones are smaller, but if they get ingested into an engine, just like a bird, they can cause problems. And there are also larger drones that are government owned and performing necessary tasks. There is some opportunity for them to operate within an airport, but it has to be timed, usually for the middle of the night.

For a heliport, one of these vertical parking garages, you’d have to meet all the restrictions about how high they can go. For the flying cars, there would be a path, staying at a low altitude at first. [She gestures, and you can tell she’s seeing all this in her mind’s eye.] It’s a concept. A concept we think is coming.

 

How does all this flight affect the climate?

 

In some European markets, there is such concern about polluting the air that they are trying to tell people not to fly, which is mind-boggling to me. But it will creep into the way we think about our aircraft, causing us to design cleaner aircraft and think about sustainability. Will we ever get electric planes? I don’t know. I don’t know that I want to be on one over an ocean!

 

What’s the future for those miserable security lines?

 

Security’s here to stay, but the technology keeps getting better. I’d like to think we are out of the days when you have to take your liquids out and your shoes off. Security threats happen—like the Shoe Bomber—and you have to respond, but then the solutions improve. Security will remain at the forefront, though. An airport can have art and music and concessions but at the end of the day, I want to get from point A to point B, and I want to make it there.

 

Airports always seem like hermetically sealed, global cities, nowhere and everywhere at once. Yet each of those “cities” has a remarkably different feel.

 

I always tell my kids, if you ever travel abroad, you need to know each country’s policies and laws. People think they can smuggle weed or throw trash, and in some countries, those offenses have extreme consequences! Airports are airports, and there are rules and regulations for everyone, regardless where you’re coming from. But each airport has its own identity, and you try to have an identity that reflects your region. Some airports—Abu Dhabi, Dubai—are built to showcase: Look what we can do! Are they any more functional? I don’t think so. In the U.S., we have always looked at airports as being more functional. We are always trying to enhance the customer experience, but it’s more important for us that we serve as a public utility, not as a showcase.

 

In some European markets, there is such concern about polluting the air that they are trying to tell people not to fly, which is mind-boggling to me. But it will creep into the way we think about our aircraft, causing us to design cleaner aircraft and think about sustainability.

 

What do you envision for Lambert, and by extension for St. Louis, in the next decade?

 

It’s an exciting time. You’re going to see more people moving back from the coasts. People say business traffic will never come back, but I don’t believe that; I think there’s always going to be that need for face-to-face conversation. If you’re doing a serious business deal, that needs to be done face to face. And if everyone is working remotely, maybe travel wasn’t part of your job before, but now you need to go in every couple months and catch up with your colleagues.

Convention traffic is extremely important to us. We are not necessarily a strong leisure destination. We are fortunate in that we have great sports teams, but we don’t have the mountains or the ocean; people don’t come here to ski or go to the beach. I do think the pandemic caused people to say, I want to get back to what’s important: family. So, a lot more Midwestern opportunities for travel can be part of the future. The ultra-low-cost carriers are driving leisure markets and giving people chances to experience other parts of the country. Flying is an important part of everybody’s life now.

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!