Overseers of an Illinois airport that hasn't turned a profit since it opened with great fanfare 12 years ago hope to turn things around with air cargo service to Asia.
A test flight run Thursday from Shanghai to MidAmerica St. Louis Airport about 25 miles east of St. Louis went well, and the airport's administrators said they hope regular service will start by the end of the year.
That could be a challenge, however, given competition from St. Louis' Lambert Airport. A delegation of Missouri business and political leaders will head to China on Saturday for a week of pitches about a possible air-freight hub at Lambert.
MidAmerica was named a U.S. port of entry in 2006, and administrators have made pitches for overseas cargo for years. They believe Lambert is late to the game in what is emerging as a turf war between two struggling airports striving to siphon business away from other Midwest hubs.
MidAmerica has struggled since opening in 1998, raising nagging questions about its usefulness. Critics have persistently labeled it a $330 million boondoggle.
The county-run site lost $5.3 million in 2008 and similar amounts in the two years before that. It lost its last passenger service in 2008, and officials have had to work hard to lure and keep cargo business at the a $7 million, 50,000-square-foot cargo terminal that opened in October 2005.
Yet the airport's supporters point to promising signs, including Chicago-based Boeing Co.'s announcement last week that it plans to lease the cargo terminal as a place to work on components for its defense programs. Boeing is expected to start work there late this year or in early 2011.
Boeing, which works on its F/A-18, F-15 and C-17 aircraft in the St. Louis area, said MidAmerica's little-used cargo terminal would be its first manufacturing site in Illinois. It will have 75 jobs to start.
The state is giving Boeing $2.3 million to help cover the cost of setting up manufacturing at MidAmerica, with more than $2 million of it in tax credits to be parsed out over 10 years, according to the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Boeing's plan to use the airport's cargo space has MidAmerica's overseers considering whether to build another warehouse or convert an existing structure into one, St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern said Friday. Any such expansion may hinge on MidAmerica's ability to seal the deal with China for a new trade route.
Kern said the airport already has proven its worth, crediting it with helping encourage an independent federal commission's decision in 2005 to keep the adjacent Scott Air Force Base open. MidAmerica and the military installation share a runway.
Thursday's cargo of electronic and industrial equipment, as well as other items, was loaded into waiting trucks bound for Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, Dallas, New York, Minneapolis and Atlanta for further distribution.