When Kansas City International Airport opened in 1972, it was considered one of the most modern in the nation — a facility designed to mesh with the automobile society.
Kansas Citians loved its drive-up access. Passengers could be dropped off and picked up right at the gate.
Only six months later, everything changed. In another city, a man took out a weapon and said, “Take me to Cuba.” Amid a furor over hijackings, KCI’s dispersed layout became a security challenge.
It was perhaps inevitable that Kansas City would someday join the ranks of conventional airports, with their cavernous lobbies linking long concourses.
Recently, the City Council acquiesced to reality and authorized an extensive study for a new airport. The new facility could be open by 2020.
For the council, it was the right move. But a hard one.
KCI is a one-trick airport. But that trick — ease of access for local residents — is greatly appreciated.
Unfortunately, the trick comes with increasingly tough trade-offs. Where customers are spread thin, choices are sparse. KCI’s menu of food-service outlets and concessions leaves a lot to be desired.
Visitors have complained for years about the clunky system for summoning taxis, which involves locating a special phone and waiting until a driver is dispatched from a holding facility. In other airports, such services are consolidated and operated with more efficiency.
A new airport would provide a big improvement in terms of security costs. KCI has a screener workforce of 550, while all three airports in the New York area use just 600. In addition, the proposed new airport would be built four miles closer to downtown Kansas City.
It would enclose up to 800,000 square feet compared with the current KCI’s 1.2 million square feet but it could handle up to 15 million passengers a year, compared with the current volume of 9 million to 11 million. The current number of major carriers at KCI has dropped from 10 to six, but Mark VanLoh, Kansas City Aviation director, says the new airport could attract substantially more business and more flights.
And a concourse-style airport would end the current discomfort of relatively confined pre-boarding areas with limited rest room facilities for secured passengers.
VanLoh calls KCI a three-ring circus. If an airline moves from one terminal to another, that can leave a nearby concession stand facing a deserted corridor. If the airline moves to the typically crowded Terminal B — the other two are half empty — the move can make it tougher for other carriers to expand.
Southwest Airlines would like to add flights but cannot because the Aviation Department can’t provide additional gates, VanLoh says. In the new airport, carriers could be shifted easily. To post their logo, they could simply plug in a flash drive to change an electronic display.
Bottom line, the problems that come with KCI’s layout mean fewer flight choices for passengers, diminished choices in concessions and less revenue for the city’s aviation fund. KCI has the “lowest revenue per passenger of any airport in the United States,” VanLoh says.
A new airport would not require a local tax increase. It would be paid for by commercial aviation users across the nation — both passengers and airlines — as well as by bonds backed by concession revenue. Constructing it would inject between $1 billion and $2 billion into the regional economy.
So far so good: The Aviation Department has made a good case, and the city should proceed.
Copyright Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.