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CARGO CITY • The big plane was not on the way.

It was a Monday afternoon, a day playing out like so many of the recent rest at Lambert-St. Louis International. Flight canceled, dream dashed once again. The celebrated new tenant of the airport's Cargo City was a no-show.

A regional jet or turbo-prop, no one would have noticed. The airport sees plenty of those. But this involved one of the world's largest airplanes. And these big planes, the jumbo jets of the world, have become Lambert's rarest birds.

The flight from China Cargo Airlines was supposed to arrive in St. Louis once a week, ramping up to several a week by year's end. That was the plan. Now seven weeks straight have seen no such airplanes, each one canceled days or hours before it was supposed to land.

That first flight in late September seemed to carry such promise. Just before 4 p.m., as the sun was getting low, a gleaming white Boeing 777 taxied down the runway toward Cargo City on the airport's eastern edge. The plane was greeted by the arched spray of water cannons. The mayor gave a speech. So did an aviation minister from China. The crew, after a 13-hour flight and refueling stop in Anchorage, posed for pictures.

"It was a big deal," recalled Carmelo Turdo, an aviation enthusiast from Florissant who made sure he attended the event.

The sight of a "Triple 7" in St. Louis had become unexpected, as it was in June 2010, when an American Airlines 777 landed at Lambert only after being diverted on its London-Dallas route because of a sick passenger.

But with China Cargo Airlines, Lambert faced the happy prospect of at least weekly visits from 777s or even larger 747s. The planes would be filled not with people, but with goods. Dignitaries and local officials cheered the news. They were attracted by the economic potential of a cargo hub with China, the start of what the consultants called an aerotropolis. But the moment also served as proof that the big planes could be returning to Lambert. Don't discount the value of that. Just look at that massive 777 on the runway now.

"We haven't seen planes that large since the TWA days," Turdo said.

As the 777 was feted, a colorful Southwest Boeing 737 — one of the most common sights at Lambert these days — rolled by. It was about half the size of the China Cargo plane. "It was kind of a joke," Turdo recalled.

Planes arrive at Lambert all the time. It remains the nation's 31st busiest airport, ranked just behind Portland and still well ahead of Kansas City or Memphis. On a day that the flight from China was scheduled to arrive, lots of other planes landed, nearing the runway with surprising quiet, like they were gliding, the smell of jet fuel more pronounced than any sound.

These were Bombardiers and Embraers, jets so skinny they look like flying dachshunds, and single-aisle Airbus 319s and 320s, Boeing 737s and the occasional MD-80, that old workhorse of the sky.

The planes touched down from cities like Atlanta and Chicago, Cincinnati and Orlando, Dallas, Phoenix and Philadelphia. A plane was filled with tourists from Cancun and another from Toronto, nods toward the "international" in the airport's name. Plus, Denver, Houston, LAX, Newark, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and LaGuardia. Then a flurry of tiny planes, sometimes accompanied by a propeller's chop, from airports like Williamson County, Baldwin Field, Waynesville and Kirksville.

But no planes from Shanghai.

Cargo City is a glum collection of five airport warehouses dotted by loading doors and arranged around a small parking lot. A blue, flickering backlit sign announces the location just beyond Terminal 2. A string of taxis idle nearby, next to a cellphone lot. A sign on warehouse No. 3 reads, "China Air Cargo Airlines, Ltd." in both English and Chinese. The company signed a two-year lease for the 20,000 square-foot space just before that first flight landed. No one for China Air actually works there. The other warehouse tenant, Airport Terminal Services, handles operations.

This unremarkable spot is supposed to be only a temporary outpost in the global economy. The dream is to build thousands of square feet of a new Cargo City, to accommodate the loads from all those big planes making the 7,400-mile trip from Shanghai to St. Louis.

So keep your eye trained on the horizon, looking for the big planes. One could be here this week.

 

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