KEITH CHROSTOWSKI

With KCI, breaking up is hard to do

Updated: 2013-05-15T03:20:53Z

By KEITH CHROSTOWSKI

The Kansas City Star

Kansas Citians are being asked to jilt their beloved KCI.

Of course, they’re reluctant. The airport’s in-and-out convenience born of its unique trio of semi-circular terminals has a solid hold on their hearts. Mine, too.

And many think spending $1.2 billion on a new single terminal is just ridiculous.

Our love affair with the 1972-built KCI has bloodied the advocates of a new airport, a point made in a Page One story in the Sunday Star. Their arguments for single-terminal design have largely been drowned out.

So in the interest of a full and fair debate, let’s for a few paragraphs give the advocates of a single terminal their say. Let’s get hard-headed about this.

The airport is indeed outdated in light of the consolidations that have swept up airlines in the last decade. The three-terminal design is overly complicated and expensive to maintain and operate.

There’s a reason, advocates point out, that KCI has lost so much traffic that Terminal A is empty and closed.

The airport has lost any hope of becoming a hub — which is saying something given Kansas City’s central location and longtime status as a crossroads for rail and trucking transportation and telecommunications infrastructure.

Do we truly want to be fly-over territory?

And while it is easy to get in and out of KCI, it’s not easy actually being in the airport.

There are 16 security stations, manned by hundreds of of Transportation Security Administration staffers, compared with one checkpoint and relatively few TSA staff at most big airports. KCI’s stations are cramped, and once you go through security, you’re trapped by your gate.

Connecting passengers often have to switch terminals and go through security again.

It’s difficult to operate top-flight amenities, such as restaurants or service clubs, because masses of fliers aren’t concentrated.

As a front door to the city, some argue, KCI just isn’t that impressive.

Imagine business executives coming to town to check out moving their companies to the Kansas City area or doing business here.

And their first on-the-ground glimpse of Kansas City is landing at the airport.

The overall scale of the immediate surroundings is, to say the least, not big. The curve of the terminals cuts off any vista.

And the interior design isn’t particularly visually striking. It does look like it was built decades ago.

You couldn’t blame executives for thinking they’ve landed in a smallish city. And for having a small grain of doubt entering their calcuations about moving here.

The renderings of a single terminal and gates are still basic. A new airport would provide an opportunity to add to the city’s striking architectural stock with a design that matches our ambitions.

Take a look at some of the new airports that have been built in this country and around the world recently.

You see cool-looking main terminals that shepherd you through security at a good clip. People movers, and even monorails like the one at the new Detroit airport, get you to and from your gate quickly — and, yes, conveniently.

Gate areas can be striking — cigar-shaped, all glass and jammed with amenities: shops, cafes, lounges, kids’ play areas, Internet stations.

All in all, the loss of flights over the years — forcing travelers from KCI to have to make and pay for more connecting flights than they would at a busier airport — along with KCI’s underwhelming impression can’t help but be a drag on the regional economy.

As for the $1.2 billion price tag, every story about that should note that the money won’t come from general taxpayers, or that it’s money that could be spent on something else. Construction bonds would be paid back with a designated revenue stream of fees on airlines and fliers. And with interest rates so low, now is a great time to borrow money.

Also, most of the money spent on a new airport would go into the pockets of local contractors and thousands of area construction workers.

Finally, replacing the airport, say 20 years from now, would probably cost more than $2 billion. In the meantime, KCI would further deteriorate.

For those who love the old KCI, all this probably doesn’t matter. After fully hashing out pros and cons, Kansas Citians may want to stick with the old flame.

To carry the day, new-airport advocates will have to heavily restack the deck of arguments in their favor.

That’s what’s going to be required to toss over a 40-year love affair.

To reach Keith Chrostowski, business editor of The Star, call 816-234-4466 or send email to chrostowski@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/keithc3.

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