Why Lambert Airport scored poorly in a national survey

Honestly, the news wasn’t a huge surprise.

On Wednesday, J.D. Power released its annual survey of passenger attitudes toward US and Canadian airports. Most airports have performed worse this year than last year, but St. Louis Lambert International Airport has fared worse than most.

Lambert took 23rd place in the list of 27 airports by its size – between 10 million and 32.9 million passengers per year.

The difference, according to Michael Taylor, an analyst at JD Power who specializes in travel, hospitality and retail, is the investment. Airports that have spent up to several billion dollars on improvements tend to do well.

Lambert hasn’t done so yet, but he has a plan to make changes in the future.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Lambert saw about 16 million passengers, according to an open presentation held in May. By 2040, you expect to see 21 million passengers, or more or take a million.

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So the problems with crowds – and waiting, queues, and parking – will only get worse unless the airport is able to expand.

The airport’s master plan currently proposes adding space to the existing Terminal 1 to create a single, significantly expanded location for all flights, including at least 10 new gates. Other proposed changes include wider concourse, an improved security checkpoint, a less confusing system of routes to the airport and more.

At a presentation in May to discuss this plan, airport representatives acknowledged there were problems with crowds — and waiting, queues, and parking. They noted some unique logistical challenges in dealing with these issues.

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Interstate 70 runs directly in front of the airport, making expansion to the south impossible. Access can be improved by relocating service roads, but any changes must be carefully planned to avoid negatively impacting neighboring communities.

The airport has done enough of that in the past. Which is supposed to be why she’s trying so hard not to do it again now.

The survey asked more than 26,000 travelers to rate the airports they’ve visited in the last 30 days. The six categories they had to make their ratings on were, in descending order of importance, terminal facilities, airport arrival and departure, baggage claim, security screening, check-in and baggage screening, and food and beverage and retail options.

Lambert scored in the bottom third or fourth quarter in each category.

Taylor said passenger expectations for airports have changed. Airports used to be just functional, the places people would go to get on or off planes.

But now, he said, they are more of a destination in their own right. With increasing delays and longer waits for connections, travelers are spending more time at airports and wanting to be more fun.

He said airports that score well in satisfaction surveys tend to be open and well ventilated. They are more like a mall. They have a large selection of food and beverage options, along with retail stores for various interests.

Ideally, he said, airports should have a mix of popular national chain restaurants (Lambert has Burger King, California pizzeria and Chili’s, but no McDonald’s or KFC) and local restaurants to give the airport a local identity.

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I told him that’s where Lambert does well. Although the airport doesn’t have as many places to eat as some of the others, most restaurants are local: The Pasta House, Mike Shannon’s Grill, Three Kings (and its Mexican offshoot, Tres Reyes), Schlafly, Urban Chestnut, and many more Anheuser-places. Busch and more.

But for people who don’t live here, none of them speak particularly well of St. Louis. You can have crab cakes in Baltimore and barbecue in Dallas. But only St. Louis residents know what it means to get an order of toasted ravioli at the airport’s Pasta House.

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