Thursday, March 8, 2012
Jokes about MidAmerica Airport don't mean the place is a joke
BY PAT GAUEN
The St. Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch
File photo of MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah on May 2, 2001.
The problems with MidAmerica Airport are no laughing matter. Take it from me.
As an emcee of a Metro East civic dinner some years back, I made a good-natured joke suggesting that actor Tom Hanks could use the empty place to make one sequel to two of his movies at once: "The Terminal," in which he played a foreigner trapped by red tape inside an airport, and "Cast Away," in which his character is trapped alone on an island.
It was humorous enough to elicit some laughs but not funny enough for David Letterman to come calling.
And apparently it was not funny at all to an official from St. Clair County, who used an award acceptance speech to lambaste the negativity of the press — ostensibly me — in a moment of poor humor for which some of the event's organizers still offer me apologies.
While I have made my share of jokes, I was never part of the chorus of ridicule that found fresh voice with last week's County Board vote authorizing $550 million worth of "conduit bonds" for the airport it owns to help finance a startup cargo airline.
That's about twice as much as it cost to build the airport, which opened in 1998. Officials insist that the bonds confer tax advantages to investors but do not obligate the taxpayers.
Naysayers began immediately guffawing, which set me thinking about another aeronautical venture in these parts about 85 years ago. Charles Lindbergh came to this very newspaper, seeking to finance a solo trans-Atlantic flight. He was told no because, "We have our reputation to consider." The rival Globe-Democrat's publisher, and some others, ended up providing the cash that helped Lindbergh fly the "Spirit of St. Louis" into the history books.
Mindful of the perils of such short-sightedness. I have preached patience with MidAmerica.
• In 1998, after NBC's Tom Brokaw included MidAmerica in his "The Fleecing of America" series, I responded here: "It certainly is fair to ask questions about things like airlines and about the political implications of having employees whose names are kept secret because they technically work for a private contractor instead of St. Clair County. But we're a long way from knowing whether we were fleeced.
"Cheap land and the shared economies with the Air Force got MidAmerica a Cadillac at Chevrolet prices. Brokaw wants to know whether we need a car at all. It's easy to believe we'll need that car sooner or later. And since this one doesn't depreciate much, we may one day be darned glad to have gotten it at 1990s prices."
• In late 2001: "Say what you want, one day — if not necessarily soon — it will make us or our children glad for the relatively modest investment."
• A 2003 essay did poke a little fun at an event heralding the arrival of what would be the short stay of Great Plains Airlines. But I also said, "I have no idea whether Great Plains will flourish or go the way of Pan American, a carrier that showed up only briefly on MidAmerica's radar screen. But make no mistake that my bet is on the place, sooner or later, to have the last laugh."
• I was still upbeat when I wrote in 2004: "MidAmerica Airport proudly announced that it lured its third airline. Unfortunately, that was its third consecutive airline. TransMeridian started flights in November, 10 months after Great Plains Airlines ended a three-month run. Pan Am had earlier folded its landing gear on a 16-month presence. But hey, I'm not discouraged. I used to have a lawn mower that wouldn't start till the third pull on the cord."
The continuing complaints about the airport miss an important point: MidAmerica was conceived in part to provide a second runway to bolster Scott Air Force Base — one of the St. Louis region's largest employers — at a time when Congress was waving a budget ax. If MidAmerica helped save Scott, it probably paid for itself right there.
And what would the critics have St. Clair County do? Just quit trying? The complainers need to look closer at my dinner joke. Tom Hanks' seemingly hopeless characters in both those movies had something significant in common.