Lufthansa puts St. Louis back on transatlantic flight map today with flights to Germany

Jun 1, 2022

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Oct. 31, 2003, was a sad day for Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge.

That was the day American Airlines Flight 134 departed St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL) for London‘s Gatwick Airport (LGW) for the last time. It was the last scheduled service from the Midwestern airport to Europe via a network carrier until now. On Wednesday, Lufthansa commences thrice-weekly service to Germany’s Frankfurt Airport (FRA) using an Airbus A330.

In 2003, Hamm-Niebruegge ran American’s now-defunct St. Louis hub. She joined American through its acquisition of bankrupt Trans World Airlines — an airline with a long and storied history in the city — in 2001. Hamm-Niebruegge worked there as the airline wound down its hub throughout the 2000s and ultimately announced its closure in 2009.

“When that last flight left, it really marked an era of devastation for this city,” she told TPG in an interview. “For this region, I think it was something that was really hard for certainly those of us at the airport to accept, but more importantly, I think, for the businesses and the region to lose that notoriety of a true international hub.”

It was just two years earlier that St. Louis had watched its nonstop service to Paris‘ Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) end.

Hamm-Niebruegge retired from American at the end of 2009, and three days later, she became executive director of the St. Louis airport — a position she still holds today. Since she saw firsthand the demise of TWA — and later American’s St. Louis hub — she’s made it her mission to restore air service to the city.

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TWA planes
St. Louis Lambert International Airport, shown here in January 2001, was once a bustling hub for TWA. (Photo by Bill Greenblatt/Liaison/Getty Images)

At the beginning of her tenure, Hamm-Niebruegge focused on restoring domestic service, largely through Southwest Airlines. That carrier is now twice as large in STL as it was in 2010, and it accounts for 55% of the airport’s market share. Then, she turned to international service.

Hamm-Niebruegge and her team decided to focus on attracting foreign carriers to the airport for international flights as opposed to U.S. carriers, which, by the mid-2010s, had become deeply entrenched in a hub-and-spoke strategy for international flying. (There are some notable exceptions, including an incentive-supported Delta flight from Indianapolis International Airport (IND) to Paris that operated from 2018 until the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and American’s flight from Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) to London Heathrow Airport (LHR), which restarts on Friday.)

The airport had a strong case for service to Europe, Hamm-Niebruegge said.

“In 2019, we had 350 people a day going into Europe every day across the board,” she said about local travelers taking connecting flights elsewhere on their way across the Atlantic. Sometimes in the summer, she said, the number would peak at about 450 passengers per day.

In the meantime, now-defunct Icelandic low-cost carrier Wow Air briefly served the city with high-density Airbus A321s in 2018 and January 2019, with flights to Keflavik Airport (KEF). However, this service was targeted toward leisure travelers; the city’s business community, which Hamm-Niebruegge engaged in efforts to land a larger airline, wanted something more for corporate travelers.

“It was important that this was a legacy carrier with business class and premium economy,” she said. “That was a critical piece of what was important to our business community to support it.”

Key members of the city’s business community include German pharmaceutical giant Bayer, which established its North American headquarters in St. Louis.

“The amount of traffic that Bayer brings to and from this market is substantial,” Hamm-Niebruegge said.

Ultimately, the business community settled on luring Lufthansa for a Frankfurt flight, and they put together an incentive package. Lufthansa will be paid up to $5 million over a two-year period if it meets a minimum service commitment — in this case, an average of three flights per week. The airport will also waive 18 months’ worth of landing fees and other costs. Half of the $5 million will be provided by Greater St. Louis, Inc., which represents the region’s businesses, and the other half will be provided by the St. Louis County Port Authority.

This type of support is key to making a new route successful, said Robert W. Mann, an airline industry consultant and former TWA executive.

“Ultimately it’s market support — and ideally, corporate market support,” Mann told TPG in an interview.

Underscoring how important this flight is to businesses, 31 local corporate executives, along with Hamm-Niebruegge, will fly to Frankfurt on Wednesday’s inaugural flight.

Related: St. Louis gets its 1st transatlantic flight to continental Europe in nearly 20 years

So far, bookings are strong, Hamm-Niebruegge said. There is optimism that this flight will continue past the two-year incentive period, she added.

“I think it will be a very successful flight,” she said. “I certainly think that we can prove the point and it’s here to stay. I think it will be a very, very strong market.”

Passengers will see some advantages when they fly into STL, too. The gate Lufthansa will use is near the airport’s customs and immigration facility, a 30-to-60-second walk, Hamm-Niebruegge said. Also, it will be the only flight using the facility at its scheduled 1:45 p.m. arrival time. She anticipates a maximum wait of 15 to 20 minutes for passengers without Global Entry on a “tough day.” Passengers who do have Global Entry can use the new additional kiosks.

Lufthansa even inked a lounge agreement for departing premium-cabin passengers, who will be able to access the Wingtips Lounge in Terminal 2. (The lounge is also accessible via Priority Pass.)

As far as additional international service for STL, Hamm-Niebruegge said it’s definitely possible, especially if the region continues to grow its biotech, plant science and financial services sectors.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for us if this region continues to excel in those areas,” she said. “We could see more growth of international service down the road.”

Featured photo by Silas Stein/picture alliance/Getty Images.

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