$5 billion in investments pouring into region’s aerospace manufacturing and aviation ecosystem also creating more than 1,000 new jobs
The St. Louis region’s aerospace manufacturing and aviation ecosystem is about to be further boosted by more than $5 billion in new planned investments that are expected to create more than 1,000 new jobs in the bi-state area. Those were among the key numbers shared during the 2023 “Take Flight Forum” on Nov. 8, which featured the directors from the five busiest airports in the St. Louis region and representatives from four of the area’s most significant aerospace manufacturing and service companies.
The forum was hosted by the St. Louis Regional Freightway and Bi-State Development.
“The bi-state region has a significant history in aviation innovation and production, so it should come as no surprise that it is home to 49 aerospace manufacturing businesses,” said moderator Mary Lamie, executive vice president of Multimodal Enterprises for Bi-State Development and head of the St. Louis Regional Freightway enterprise. “Collectively, these businesses account for nearly 17,300 employees. With recent expansion announcements by Boeing and Gulfstream, that number will grow an estimated five percent in the coming years as nearly 1,000 new jobs are added.
Already, 312,714 individuals are employed in industries secondary, tertiary or supportive to aerospace manufacturing here, and West Star Aviation will add another 100 jobs to that total, further illustrating the vital role of this ecosystem.
The five airports contributing to those totals include St. Louis Lambert International Airport and Spirit of St. Louis Airport in eastern Missouri, and three southwestern Illinois airports — St. Louis Downtown Airport, MidAmerica St. Louis Airport and St. Louis Regional Airport. The featured tenants whose operations are factored into the total numbers include The Boeing Company, Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., West Star Aviation and AVMATS.
“Aerospace manufacturing is more than 2.5 times more concentrated in the St. Louis region compared to the national average, and our aerospace manufacturing workers are five percent more productive,” Lamie said. “These factors are driving continued investments, with an estimated $5 billion in projects planned over the next five to 10 years by the airports and their major tenants.”
Panelists shared information about the planned investments, the significance of the bi-state area’s aerospace and aviation industries, and the tremendous job opportunities in this vibrant sector of the St. Louis region’s economy. They also talked about the many efforts underway regionwide to help grow the pipeline of potential workers to keep up with the growth.
Spirit of St. Louis Airport (SUS) – Director John Bales said Spirit of St. Louis Airport is the busiest business aviation airport in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Central Region, which includes Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. Located in Chesterfield, Mo., it consistently ranks second or third for flight traffic, alternating with Kansas City after St. Louis Lambert International. Spirit posts 155,000 operations per year, which equals about 445 flights a day.
“As the airport continues to grow, one of the unique aspects we do have is we’re one of only five ports of entry in Missouri,” said Bales. “While we don’t have nearly as many seats or people to clear, we do have 330 international arrivals per year.”
Bales added that when it comes to future development, the airport is looking at $200 million in planned projects over the next five to 10 years, including both private and public investment. Among those projects, the airport will be redoing the main runway, and on the private sector side, it has a major operator looking to expand a 45,000 square foot hangar, a yet to be named major corporation that is going to lease land and a major T-hangar complex going in.
St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL) remains the region’s busiest airport, and for Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, the focus right now is on negotiating with the airlines on a new $2.8 billion consolidated terminal complex. She said the plans call for a 62-gate single terminal concourse with one united checkpoint once you pass through the ticketing area, and a dual-sided concourse, which the airport does not have today on a lot of its concourses.
“That’s critically important as we think about Southwest and the growth of what Southwest is doing from a connection standpoint,” said Hamm-Niebruegge. “A decade ago, they had 10 or 15 percent of their traffic connecting through STL. This year, we’ll see 34 percent or 35 percent of their traffic connecting, and last month it was at an all-time high of 38 percent connecting through St. Louis. That connecting traffic today is really starting to butt up against our growth opportunities because of the single-sided concourse in Terminal 2. So, really, thinking about the future, thinking about potential growth with Southwest as well as our other partners, the consolidated terminal complex with dual sides is really the way to go.”
The airport is working on an agreement to go out for architectural design, hopefully in 2024, and recently approved
$335 million of enabling projects being undertaken now to prepare for the new terminal.
St. Louis Regional Airport (ALN) — Located in East Alton, Ill., St. Louis Regional Airport is home to the growing operations of West Star Aviation and more than 100 privately owned aircraft hangers. The airport supports more than 1,500 jobs with an annual economic impact of $480 million.
Director Daniel Adams is overseeing a series of investments at the airport that will positively impact those numbers. He highlighted the runway rehabilitation completed this summer, a public parking lot project and a field facility project in the works, as well as a new private hangar going up. He also acknowledged the ongoing efforts to keep up with West Star Aviation’s continued growth and talked about the importance of partnerships in running St. Louis Regional Airport.
“We’re a small, mighty staff of 11,” said Adams. “So, we like to rely on our partnerships, whether it’s Hanson Professional Services, the Leadership Council, Bethalto Chamber of Commerce or River Bend Growth Association, and even the other airport directors are very helpful.”
MidAmerica St. Louis Airport (BLV) — Operating under a joint use agreement with Scott Air Force Base, MidAmerica St. Louis Airport continues to have a combined economic impact of $3.1 billion and supports more than 23,400 jobs. Interim Airport Director Darren James said the airport is working to enhance its role in the leisure market. Allegiant Airlines serves 11 destinations from the airport, primarily in the southeastern United States, and James says is looking to develop its service while also attracting other ultra-low-cost carriers.
“The big news for us this past year was in June, when we opened a 42,000 square-foot expansion to our terminal,” James said. “The focus there is both to enhance capacity as well as the customer experience.” He added the preexisting terminal is also getting an overhaul.
Looking to the future, James said the airport is excited to soon welcome Boeing’s new MQ-25 final assembly facility and recently completed the new $38 million Taxiway Lima project to connect it to the airport’s runway. James also is exploring the ability to expand into air carrier international service, which would require the airport to have a federal inspection station, something it is looking at as a fourth phase of its terminal project.
St. Louis Downtown Airport (KCPS) – In the most recent report (2019) from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), the economic impact of St. Louis Downtown Airport was $422 million, with 1,500 employees. Director Sandra Shore believes it has increased significantly since then. She said every airport tenant is looking to expand services at the airport or looking for a place to expand those services. The airport has been investing in its own infrastructure improvements to help support that growth. A key example is the recently completed $5.4 million Ground Engine Run Up and Compass Calibration Pad, which is supporting the maintenance, repair and overhaul services that airport tenants provide and their completion services. Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., the airport’s largest tenant, considers the new facility to be “invaluable” for it and its customers.
Shore said the airport is also continuing to see record setting numbers in fuel sales and operations. “It’s not always easy to track, but when you ask around, the answer we get from our tenants is business is back in St. Louis, which is an incredibly good thing to hear,” said Shore. “We’re looking forward to continuing to grow in that area.”
The Boeing Company — Randell Gelzer, senior director of Government Operations for The Boeing Company, said Boeing St. Louis has three major business units in the region, including defense, commercial and services that collectively have more than 16,000 employees. The company has about a $1.9 billion annual payroll and a very large supplier base in the state of Missouri, with about 368 suppliers with over $765 billion spent annually, and that is mirrored in Illinois.
With a $1.8 billion expansion planned at St. Louis Lambert International Airport and $200 million being invested in the new production facility at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport where the MQ-25 unmanned aircraft will be made, Gelzer said The Boeing Company expects to add approximately 650 new jobs in the region. A variety of factors are fueling the expansion, but they all tie back to the ecosystem that exists here.
“Boeing has had a long-standing presence in the community,” said Gelzer, who also noted that the company’s last major announcement was the move of its triple seven work to St. Louis. “It’s because of the partnerships, the relationships at all levels within this ecosystem, whether that’s with the airports, non-profits, the business community, local and state chambers, and economic development organizations.”
Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. has more than 20,000 employees worldwide, operating out of 12 service centers and four completions centers, the newest of which opened at St. Louis Downtown Airport in June. Anthony Ray, vice president and general manager, St. Louis Completions, said that’s where aircraft are outfitted to the specifications of the customer from the paint stripes to the custom interior, and then delivered into the market. The new completions facility augments the company’s existing maintenance repair and overall (MRO) facility, which has been operating at St. Louis Downtown Airport since 2017.
Ray said Gulfstream Aerospace has more than 500 employees at its facility at St. Louis Downtown Airport, and that number continues to grow. The company announced plans in June for a $28.5 million expansion that will add 200 new jobs. As Gulfstream’s expansion continues, there are still various career opportunities and jobs available.
“We have over 3,000 Gulfstream aircraft flying around the world today. As our fleet continues to grow, it is necessary that we expand our facilities and customer offerings,” said Ray. “The greater St. Louis region is an area we’ve strategically identified to further invest in to support this growth. The local workforce and partnerships we’ve established is invaluable. The strong relationships that we currently have with local educational institutions, the Bi-State Development, local government and community leaders, and Sandra [Shore] and her phenomenal group at the St. Louis Downtown Airport have certainly contributed to our decision to continue to expand here.”
AVMATS – Jason Noll, director of Sales & Marketing for AVMATS, had compelling numbers to share about the longevity of the workforce at AVMATS, a small, family-owned company that services and supports small to mid-sized business jets and some military aircraft. The company has approximately 150 employees and boasts an average employment term of around 13 years, with a handful of employees who have been there since the company’s founding 45 years ago.
AVMATS operates a paint and hangar facility at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport and has 100,000 square feet of warehouse space and 62,000 square feet of back shops in O’Fallon, Missouri, dedicated to engine components and parts support divisions. At Spirit of St. Louis Airport, it offers its customers aircraft maintenance, avionics, interiors, and structural support services, operating across about 120,000 square feet of production space.
“The traffic we see is pretty specialized. So annually, we see about 300 to 400 airplanes through our Spirit of St. Louis facilities, and about 15percent of those are internationally based,” Noll said. “We have an extraordinary set of skilled craftsmen that work at AVMATS.”
West Star Aviation — Brian Bauwens serves as general manager for West Star Aviation’s two locations in the St. Louis area at St. Louis Regional Airport (ALN) and St. Louis Downtown Airport (KCPS). At the primary location at St. Louis Regional Airport, Bauwens said this site is a full-service MRO that is a one-stop shop. Their operations comply with Aircraft Maintenance, complete strip and repaint, Avionics modifications and repairs, and Interior refurbishments.
At KCPS, West Star occupies one hanger totaling 50,000 square feet of hangar and office space. That space also previously housed West Star’s sister company Avant Aerospace, through which West Star purchases aircraft and part out to better support its business, customers and other vendors in the aviation industry. Avant recently relocated to a 36,000-square-foot warehouse in Collinsville, Ill., so it has room to grow the parts side of the business, and West Star can increase its hangar space at CPS for the growing MRO business. He said West Star Aviation has turned out about 850 aircraft over the last 12 months.
Bauwens said West Star Aviation has just over 600 employees at the St. Louis Regional Airport facility and more than 400,000 square feet currently under roof, with expansion plans set to grow that to nearly 500,000 square foot and add another 100 employees.
“At the end of the day, with all the talent and the workforce here in the local area, I think we can consider St. Louis to be an aviation mecca,” said Bauwens. “The access to talent, the relationships, it all just plays a part.”
Workforce development was a common theme throughout the Take Flight Forum. Several panelists are engaged in efforts to spark interest in STEM careers and aviation among high school students, providing internships and apprenticeship programs, partnering with various colleges and universities, and devising a host of other creative ways to grow the workforce and make the St Louis region the place that the next generation of aviators want to come. One of those is the new academy being launched by West Star Aviation in partnership with Southwestern Illinois College.
Bauwens said, in working with the local colleges, West Star Aviation found the student enrollment numbers do not support the growth in the region, and many potential students cannot afford the cost of attending college.
“West Star Academy will eliminate two of these barriers and power more local talent aspiring to become aviation technicians,” noted Bauwens. “It’ll allow them to obtain a job, the skills and experience to grow their careers and play a vital role in the aviation industry.”
About St. Louis Regional Freightway
The St. Louis Regional Freightway is a Bi-State Development enterprise formed to create a regional freight district and comprehensive authority for freight operations and opportunities within eight counties in southwestern Illinois and eastern Missouri that comprise the St. Louis metropolitan area. Public sector and private industry businesses are partnering with the St. Louis Regional Freightway to establish the bi-state region as one of the premier multimodal freight hubs and distribution centers in the United States through marketing, public advocacy, and freight and infrastructure development. To learn more, visit thefreightway.com.