KANSAS CITY — Local officials are considering a plan that would privatize Kansas City International Airport and bring in more than $1 billion for the city.
Mayor Pro Tem Bill Skaggs said Tuesday city officials need to act quickly before the three remaining spots in a federal program to privatize airports are taken.
"What benefit is it to Kansas City, Missouri, to own the airport — other than to say we own KCI?" Skaggs asked. "We derive no benefit from it here at City Hall whatsoever."
Most of the revenue generated by the airport goes into a special city fund that can be used for only aviation purposes. By turning the airport over to private operators the city could reap a huge cash windfall.
"To date, we really haven't found any negatives," said Aviation Director Mark Van Loh, "other than the perception that you're losing your airport."
Council members reacted cautiously Tuesday to the idea but said they are willing to consider it. Skaggs said only two council members have been unwilling to explore the option.
Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who as city auditor proposed leasing or selling the airport 10 years ago as a way to generate money for city operations, said there is no downside to pursuing a private lease. But he said it should be up to voters to make the final decision.
Other major U.S. airports are either participating in the federal program or thinking about it. Chicago, the first to do so, will lease Midway Airport for 99 years. In return, the city will receive more than $2.5 billion, with about $1.4 billion going toward airport debt.
Kansas City's airport has about $240 million in debt, while the city is facing an $85 million shortfall.
Van Loh, who said city staff explored the idea for months, said he believes the biggest downside for most people would be losing city control of a major asset.
"Well, you don't have control," he said, "and you never did anyway."
He said the city needs to apply for federal approval within the next 30 days or risk being shut out of the program.
Russ Johnson, chairman of the City Council's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the idea is intriguing.
"I think we should explore it," he said. "If there's an opportunity for millions to fix sidewalks and do other things, then we should look at it. Otherwise, those dollars are just locked up."
Other members said the city needs to be cautious and consider the ramifications of giving up the airport.
"I think we need to look at everything, but we also need to be careful," said Councilwoman Cindy Circo. "Once it's gone, it's gone."