Clear skies ahead

The executive director of St. Louis Lambert International Airport sat down to discuss how a spring break trip as a Mizzou undergrad sparked a lifelong interest in aviation.

Rhonda Hamm-Niebrugge standing at St. Louis airport
Photo by Bill Greenblatt

Published on Show Me Mizzou Jan. 10, 2024
Story by Blaire Leible Garwitz, MA ’06

Over the past four decades, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, BA ’82, has broken barriers in a male-dominated industry and rose through the ranks to run the airport operations department for the world’s largest airline. The executive director of St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL) is steering the transportation hub toward new heights after enduring several challenges, including the end of Trans World Airlines (TWA), a 2011 tornado and a global pandemic. Under her leadership, the airport is now thriving. Passenger numbers are almost back to pre-2020 levels, and Lambert has added more carriers and international flights. Additionally, an ambitious master plan is underway that will carry the airport into the 2030s and well beyond.

You were a German major. How did you land in aviation?

I wanted to travel and work for the CIA, and I thought a foreign language would be a great asset. However, I didn’t take my first flight until I was traveling to Florida during a Mizzou spring break. I was fascinated by the whole experience from watching the plane get off the ground to the inflight service to the landing at Fort Lauderdale, and the experience sparked my interest in aviation. I returned to Mizzou and my senior year started looking for job opportunities and briefly embarked on the lengthy CIA interview process. After graduation, I needed a job and landed an interview with Ozark Airlines and eventually took a job at LaGuardia Airport in New York. I loved working for Ozark and moved up the ladder quickly. So the CIA process was short lived, and I decided to stay in the airline industry. 

How did you arrive at St. Louis Lambert?

TWA bought Ozark, and I moved to St. Louis where the TWA headquarters was being located. I had several roles over the years, including the director of passenger services at the hub in St. Louis, head of the Eastern region of airports and later as the director of the STL hub. It was a dream come true, and because there weren’t many women in aviation who were in operational roles, I was getting noticed. 

When American Airlines bought TWA in 2001, I worked on the integration of the two airlines from the airports division perspective, and once that was completed, American asked me to transfer to Dallas. But I needed to stay in St. Louis with my family. So, they offered me the opportunity to return to running the St. Louis hub again. It was a difficult role over the next several years because I was tasked with dismantling the hub. I was getting close to saying goodbye to aviation, but area leaders reached out to see if I had an interest in becoming the airport director, and I took the opportunity once again to look for a different path. Ultimately, I was offered the opportunity to be a part of Mayor [Francis] Slay’s cabinet and took over as the director of St. Louis Lambert International Airport in 2010.

St. Louis Lambert has faced several challenges. How has it bounced back?

Our employees are resilient and wanted to keep moving forward after the loss of the hub, so we began the undertaking of a strategic plan and connecting with the business community to see how we chart a path forward. Then the F4 tornado hit in 2011, and I reached out to business leaders for help, and assistance came pouring in. We opened the airport the next day for arriving flights, and the following morning, we opened with 70% of our traffic. Within three days, we were back to 100%. It was an amazing effort, and we could not have done that without the community support. 

Since then, we have partnered with Southwest Airlines to grow dramatically and push connecting traffic through STL, brought in new carriers that served STL for the first time, and in 2019 processed 16 million passengers through STL. COVID was tough, but again, we managed through it and our 2023 passenger numbers are almost as high as 2019. In 2024, I think we’ll exceed them. We’ve also added flights to Frankfurt [Germany], Montreal, Burbank [California] and Norfolk [Virginia], and we have broadened our carrier base. 

What’s next? Hopefully a bigger baggage claim area for Southwest because two carousels just aren’t enough!

Yes, that’s in the works as well as our airport master plan! The FAA approved our plan in the spring of 2023, and we’re negotiating with the airlines now on a new use and lease agreement and the design of a new consolidated modern terminal. It’s a proposed $2.8 billion project that has a potential completion in 2031. We’ll have a single-terminal, 62-gate concept that keeps St. Louis Lambert’s iconic domes. 

Besides that life-changing spring break flight, how else has Mizzou impacted your life?

I wouldn’t trade my time at Mizzou for anything. I received amazing support from faculty and staff and found lifelong friends. The best thing Mizzou taught me was to not fear opportunities and that life should be adventurous. I’ve carried that with me my entire career.

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