Airports across the U.S. are recognizing the value in opening up and partnering with local aviation enthusiasts (AvGeeks.) We have been delighted to recognize, encourage, and report on this trend. To that end, AirlineReporter recently featured two airports looking to forge relationships in their own unique ways. How can we tell that this is indeed a trend rather than a few random events? Now, even airports known for being aggressive are looking to thaw relations. While this should not come as a surprise to locals or anyone who has recently tried PlaneSpotting in the area, it’s worth stating: The St. Louis airport has a well deserved, longstanding spot in the “AvGeek unfriendly” category.
But the airport’s recent #STLavDay event suggests that may very well be changing.
STLavDay- Ahem, that’s the abbreviation for STL aviation day, thank you very much.
The airport clearly put a lot of effort into planning what turned out to be an impressive inaugural event… Tongue-in-cheek questionable hashtag/abbreviation aside. In chatting with STLavDay organizers, interest in the invite-only event was strong. Just twenty-one attendees were selected from a much larger pool. To be considered, folks would participate in a sort of contest sharing photos and/or answering a few questions relating to their aviation interest. To their credit, the airport advertised the event on their various social media channels and the contest ran for at least a week. AirlineReporter attended without participating in the contest. However, we received equal treatment as those who went through the formal process. Additionally, we cared for our own travel and lodging.
Meet and greet
We arrived to the airport just before 10 AM and followed signage to what we discovered was an unused bit of former airport terminal.
After passing various checkpoints we arrived at two smiling faces welcoming us to the inaugural event. Upon signing in, we received wristbands and lanyard credentials featuring our social media handles. (Nice touch, by the way.) The next thirty minutes consisted of boilerplate safety briefings and getting to know our fellow AvGeeks.
I expected that my wife and I would be those who had traveled farthest (from the other side of the state) but it turned out the airport had attracted attention from a wide geographic area. One participant was from Kansas, another from San Antonio, and a few other non-locals thrown in for good measure. The fact that attendees were willing to travel from multiple states should be a clear sign to STL and others within their peer group having a less-than-friendly disposition towards PlaneSpotters and AvGeeks: AvGeeks travel for access. Embrace their added PFC dollars and padding of enplanement numbers while adding crucial eyes on the airfield.
Behind-the-scenes at baggage handling
Our first tour stop was in a baggage handling room. I have been exceedingly fortunate to have the opportunity to visit a number of baggage systems over the years. If you have seen one, you have seen them all: A labyrinth of conveyor belts transporting bags here and there. We noted on Twitter that photos weren’t allowed which resulted in an aggressive response from one fellow enthusiast. I wouldn’t otherwise mention it, but there is an important lesson here. Yes, the “no photos” rule seems silly (no other airport we’ve visited had such a rule) however, house rules matter. STL is dipping their toes in opening up here. We need to be accepting of airports where they are, and slowly nudge them along.
A bright spot of the baggage room was a TWA sticker we spotted still in place from the late 1990s. The revision date was February 1997. Cool! (We received special clearance for this one photo.)
Emergency Management Mobile Command
While STL is not alone in having a mobile command bus, this was the first I have seen with my own eyes. Once onboard STL’s totally repurposed passenger bus we met with STL’s resident emergency management expert. Upon boarding, we were walked through what made this command center extra special. STL’s is a unique supplement to the airport’s emergency management plan. All of the walls are comprised of a magnetic whiteboard material for ease of jotting notes. There are multiple stations onboard for liaisons from various supporting departments. Hanging from the ceiling or on walls were screens showing real-time data as well as video pumped in from cameras mounted atop a telescoping antenna.
The airport was pleased to note that while the bus has proven handy during training missions, there has yet to be a real-life incident requiring its use.
Our next stop was atop a spiral staircase to a large windowed room; Airport Operations – consider it the “nerve center” of the airport. “Ops” agents as they tend to be called are tasked with monitoring various data feeds, coordinating with numerous departments, and having an on-the-ground presence for a litany of manual tasks around the airport. During our visit the ops team was discussing bird strikes, a serious problem that plagues airports. Remember the Miracle on the Hudson? This is why wildlife management in areas where aircraft operate is important. While with ops we learned about catch-and-release programs, and the complex process around reporting and cataloging birdstrikes. Did you know if the species of bird cannot be identified, a sample is sent to the Smithsonian?
Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF)
The third stop on our STLavDay tour was one of STL’s two firehouses. Given the “long” layout of STL’s airfield, just one firehouse would not allow for appropriate response times to all areas. Solution? Build another firehouse! Two (or more) firehouses isn’t uncommon at larger airports, but this setup is unique enough to note for a midwest operation.
A hand-full of AvGeeks were happy to climb aboard and learn all about the unique equipment and approach required for airport and aircraft-related fires.
PlaneSpotting from the field
For all of the planning and effort that the airport crew invested in other aspects of STLavDay, the most well-received stop along the tour was the opportunity to catch some traffic from the middle of the airfield. Jeff Lea, STL’s public relations manager, asked if we wanted to get some spotting in from a unique vantage point. Every face lit up as a result. While there was no traffic of particular interest, the opportunity to snap photos with the terminals and tower in the background was certainly a special treat. We spent what must have been at least thirty minutes spotting, although it only felt like a few before we loaded up the tour bus and were taken back to the terminal for one last treat.
Meet and greet with STL’s director, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge
Upon arriving back to the terminal we were greeted by STL’s number one in command, Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge. While we enjoyed a catered lunch, Hamm-Niebruegge discussed her incredible tenure in aviation prior to becoming the airport’s leader. Past roles of AvGeek interest include time with Ozark and later TWA.
Hamm-Niebruegge discussed in detail how STL airport is governed and financed. While I found it to be interesting, I got the impression fellow enthusiasts had lost interest. Part of the presentation detailed the incredible transformation and cost-cutting efforts the airport was forced to undertake when TWA left and traffic plummeted.
Other topics of note included the loss of trans-Atlantic service when Wow pulled out, and active interest to find a new partner to fill that vacancy. Hamm-Niebruegge also shared that the now long-term grounding of the 737 MAX aircraft has directly impacted her airport’s operations and growth aspirations. A few days prior to STLavDay, the airport was informed that a planned new Southwest route had been indefinitely tabled given fleet constraints resulting from the 737 MAX grounding.
All good things start with a first step. STLavDay was the first step in thawing relations with the aviation enthusiast community. The event was well executed. And judging by the reception of others, it was well received. These events take a lot of planning and effort. It is my sincere hope that the organizers saw a clear return on investment in their first major foray into airport community engagement. For all of my travels, this is the first in which an airport director set aside time for a large group of enthusiasts on a Saturday afternoon. Well done to all and best wishes on future success.