Nightly News   |  January 12, 2010

Underused airport flies high on the hog

Jan. 12: The Fleecing of America: Despite servicing only one flight each week, and none from major carriers, the MidAmerica St. Louis Airport has been the recipient of millions of dollars in federal funds. NBC's Kevin Tibbles reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> bahamas.

>>> as you may know this week, we are reviving and old viewer and tax-pair favorite of ours, our series of reports called "the fleecing of america ." tonight what many people consider a special outrage, paid for with taxpayer dollars. it's a lovely airport, nicer than a lot we fly into and out of, only there are no scheduled flights in or out of this one. how exactly did that happen? we asked our own kevin tibbles to look into it.

>> reporter: some call it the glass palace on the prairie. mid america airport, money pit or potential make-maker? nbc news first reported on the airport 12 years ago as a fleecing of america .

>> a state-of-the-art airport. brand-new.

>> reporter: no passengers, no airlines and a multimillion dollar price tag.

>> a colossal waste of taxpayer money.

>> reporter: today the tab has grown to $321 million. as a joint operation between st . clair county, illinois, and scott air force base , it was built to relieve congestion at lambert field in nearby st . louis. air traffic failed to grow as predicted, because of 9/11, airline mergers and the recession. it's mid afternoon at mid america 's fully-functioning modern terminal. aside from a few employees and the camera crew , i am the only one here. analyst michael boyd shakes his head.

>> it was based on bad planning to start with, and they are paying a high price for that.

>> reporter: a price of $4 million to $5 million a year.

>> citizens of st . clair county are tired of putting money into this pit and not seeing a return.

>> reporter: the county board president who refuses to be interviewed in the cementy terminal sees it differently. he believes mid america kept scott air force base from closing because its longer runway could accommodate larger military planes.

>> when balanced against $2.3 million economic impact scott air force base brings to the region, we believe that is a trade-off worth taking.

>> reporter: the air force told nbc that scott was never expected for closure, and that midamerica had nothing to do with the decision to keep it open. now the county has spent $7 million on a refrigerated warehouse hoping for international cargo. so far one flight a week, flowers from colombia.

>> the regional people here have opportunity for customers directly into latin america they never had before.

>> reporter: midamerica airport , diamond in the rough or costly venture that might never get off the ground? kevin tibbles, nbc news, illinois.

>>> there is more on this story on our website at tomorrow night here with