By Randy Pierce
MASCOUTAH – Long-term expansion of service from MidAmerica St. Louis Airport to any number of major destinations could get a boost through the help of a federal grant applied for this month by its director, Bryan Johnson, according to what he reported to the St. Clair County Public Building Commission during its most recent meeting.
Citing target markets such as Baltimore, Newark/New York, Denver, Oakland, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, Johnson explained the grant money, if awarded, would be used to enable MAA to offer airline service start-up cost offsets and support marketing efforts connected with the processes involved in reaching those destinations.
He added that this year there is more money designated for this purpose as part of the federal grant administered by the United States Department of Transportation through what is described as its Small Community Air Service Development Program.
“It’s really exciting to participate in grants for airports that are small such as ours,” Johnson told the PBC, later adding, “We think we will be successful.”
PBC Chairman Richard Sauget echoed Johnson’s feelings of positive anticipation, “This would really put us in the big leagues for air service.”
This grant opportunity made available to all air service facilities in the country was sought on three previous occasions for MAA, those being in 2013, 2015 and 2021 but the optimism for it to have an impact here is high now not only due to the existence of greater levels of funding set aside for this program but also because of other factors in place at MidAmerica such as its pending terminal expansion, rapidly nearing completion, and continued growth in terms of destinations served by its carrier, Allegiant Airlines.
The grant application is asking for $490,000 from the SCASDP which would require a local matching share of $160,000 if approved. Johnson said there is a reason why this specific figure was decided upon, noting, “It’s really a sweet spot for us and it’s likely to get approved. Sometimes, smaller amounts will get approved over a larger amount and we’re looking at serving any airline as a crew base’’ as part of the goal to reach the aforementioned new destinations.
Asking for a lesser amount this year than in 2021, Johnson explained, is a significant component of the belief that the chances are much better for receiving it.
The 24-page application did not have to specifically mention the name of an airline service provider, Johnson added, so it could be Allegiant or another one. Allegiant did, however, offer a letter of support that was incorporated with this grant application.
The source of the possible outside funding is the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program set up to support local airports in upgrading the services they provide. Those airports can utilize the money to pursue a variety of strategies including incentives, subsidies or other economic tools and marketing, as mentioned by Johnson, to encourage additional service.
Along with offering more air mobility to citizens who have MAA accessible to them, the additional benefits as cited by the FAA include attracting investment, generating employment, encouraging tourism, boosting economic growth and retaining jobs that could otherwise be relocated elsewhere.
As part of a presentation by Jack Penning, representing a firm called Volaire Aviation Consulting, which is based in Portland, Oregon, at a meeting of the PBC held earlier this year, he shared ideas concerning the expansion of MAA’s services to reach destinations such as those referred to by Johnson when he discussed the grant application.
Penning also mentioned some other major potential destinations, noting that Allegiant is establishing a greater presence in two large Texas cities, Austin and Houston, which both present possible future options for MAA.
Looking at such considerations, Penning said, involves whether or not the destination makes sense for fitting into the MAA/Allegiant network, whether or not it will make money for whatever airline is involved and if Allegiant would bear the cost of some of the risk in establishing the new routes. He added that the third “piece” concerning the risk sharing is the most important.
As an example of this type of concept in the airline industry, Penning explained this is why Lufthansa chose St. Louis Lambert International Airport a few months ago over Kansas City or Nashville. The major factor in that situation, he elaborated upon, was how St. Louis pledged $5 million in support of the Lufthansa decision to use its airport.
“That’s how airlines think,” Penning explained. “They want to go with the least risk, especially in this day and age.”
“I want you to understand we’re just not competing regionally,” Penning went on, after earlier saying St. Louis Lambert was not the sole competition for MAA. “We’re competing with everybody for our service.”
Penning, who said meetings with Allegiant on behalf of MAA are ongoing, further focused on the importance of marketing, one of the things Johnson said would benefit from the SCASDP grant money, “I’m hopeful we can get this done because it gives us so many other places that we can fly to.”
Portland, Oregon and Nashville, Tennessee were also mentioned by Penning as future possible destinations from MAA, calling them “the best potential markets based on our analysis of passengers, revenues and fares that would make the most money (for the air carrier).”
He further added justification for the other locations being looked at, “Los Angeles has a ton of demand. The other one is Orange County (California), we have so much demand for LA, there’s very few flights from St. Louis for that.”
Baltimore and Los Angeles, Penning noted, both “have a ton of potential” in terms of air carrier profit possible from MAA-based flights. “We have a lot of service targets and this is not exhaustive.”
“None of these work without a base,” he continued, referring to MAA, “Keep in mind these are our targets regardless of what airline it’s from. These are all markets we need service to whether it’s a new carrier, whether it’s an Avelo (a low-cost carrier based in Houston), whether it’s Allegiant. These (locations) are all places where we could support more service now.”
“We want to be St. Louis’ low-cost airport. That’s my underlying vision for who we are. Obviously, I’m excited about it,” Penning commented.