If you have ever flown through Kansas City International Airport (KCI), you likely have noticed the three stand-alone horseshoe terminals—only two of which are active. Or the lack of food and beverage choices, restrooms, and other amenities near the gates compared with what is available at similar, modern airports.
The flying public has also noticed that J.D. Power and Associates recently ranked 45-year-old KCI 27th out of 34 medium-sized airports in its 2016 North America Airport Satisfaction Study. Kansas City business leaders have noticed, too, and have joined with the town’s civic and political boosters to push for the construction of a single terminal to stem a deteriorating customer experience. Air carriers have lobbied for improvements for years.
In early May, global engineering firm Burns & McDonnell proposed to privately finance a roughly $1.25 billion single terminal. ULI Kansas City convened a panel discussion about the airport’s future and what it means to the city’s economy.
Speaking at the Kauffman Conference Center near the Country Club Plaza, panelists argued that a single terminal would bring more direct flights, which could help recruit and retain businesses. They also warned that the airport has fallen behind peers like Indianapolis, and smaller airport expansions within a few hundred miles were diminishing its regional pull.
In addition, panelists said that the current airport design is out of sync with the billions of dollars of real estate and infrastructure investment that have poured into downtown and former industrial neighborhoods on its fringe over the last 15 years or so. Among other projects, developments include the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a starter light-rail line, and housing, offices, and an arena and entertainment district.
“Once we get people out of the airport and they see the assets we’ve created, it makes up for what is maybe a sour first impression,” said panelist Joe Reardon, president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. “But first impressions matter, and I think the public is ready to have a conversation about a single terminal because there is so much pride in the city right now.”
The only problem is that the many city residents are against the idea and want a renovation instead. A chief reason is that they love having the gates just a few steps from terminal entrances. That image of convenience was central to KCI’s design and was largely done to satisfy demands of Trans World Airlines, which continued to have major operations in the city after moving its headquarters to New York in 1964.
But TWA, architect Kivett & Myers, and the city built an airport for a vanishing vision of air travel. An increasing number of airplane hijackings, including one playing out on the day KCI opened in 1972, prompted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin screening passengers. Subsequently, the airport had to add a security wall and check points at every gate, which still exist today in contrast to central security zones typical at other airports.
But the biggest disrupters have been airline deregulation in 1978 and the 9/11 attacks, both of which have resulted in more passengers cramming into shrinking gate areas, the panelists pointed out. Deregulation sparked more competition and mergers, for example, and the average plane serving KCI has grown from 80 seats in 1972 to 129 seats in 2017, said panelist Justin Meyer, deputy director of marketing and air service development for the Kansas City Aviation Department. A much higher percentage of seats are typically occupied today, he added.
In the past, it was easy for passengers to leave KCI’s gates to use restrooms or grab a snack and then re-enter through security. But heightened security led to more intense screening, and leaving the gate after passing through security was no longer an option. KCI has had to squeeze food and beverage kiosks and small restrooms into the areas, and the FAA wants it to add or expand locations for nursing mothers and service animals, Meyer said. The aviation department would like to add VIP lounges, play areas for kids, and more restaurant offerings, too.
“There are a lot of efficiencies to be gained with a single terminal, which will provide the square footage we need behind security to give passengers the ability to move around and the amenities they want,” Meyer said. “We’re just running out of space in these very uniquely designed gate areas.”
Kansas City Mayor Sly James welcomed Burns & McDonnell’s proposal, and the Kansas City Council is shelling out $475,000 to law firms to conduct a fast-track review. Key to the private deal would be an agreement that allows the city to own and operate the airport. Yet audience members at the ULI event questioned why other firms could not bid on the project, a theme that is being echoed by local media and opponents.
To a large degree, it is because no one else responded when the mayor asked the community at large to come up with a solution last year, said panelist Amy Jordan Wooden, a public affairs and “crisis communications” consultant working with the city manager’s office. The mayor sought input last year after he shelved an extensively researched aviation bond proposal to build a new terminal. It was set to go on the ballot last August, but polls revealed weak support amid opponent warnings that air travel prices would skyrocket and that the city’s taxpayers could be at risk.
A public vote is a wildcard in KCI’s fortunes. The cost of the new terminal ultimately would be borne by airlines in the form of user fees. Under Missouri law, a public vote was required for the aviation bond proposal because it involved public debt. But the active and vocal opposition warned that the city might try to get around the vote, so in a show of good faith, the mayor and city council specifically promised that voters would have a say on KCI’s future, Jordan Wooden said. So if the city advances the Burns & McDonnell plan, it will still go before voters even though no public debt will be issued.
“The council will have to decide what to do if the Burns & McDonnell solution doesn’t work,” Jordan Wooden said. “But I think we can all agree on the fact that we are running out of time. It’s like the airlines have been asking us to prom for quite some time, and we keep putting them off.”
After this event was held, it was reported in the local media that AECOM, the largest airport design firm in the U.S., has submitted a letter of interest for consideration by the city council. Mayor James then later announced that he would be open to other proposals.