KEVIN COLLISON

Future of KCI needs an honest, clear-eyed debate

Updated: 2013-06-12T04:15:35Z

By KEVIN COLLISON

The Kansas City Star

What is it about planning the future transportation needs of Kansas City that causes so much melodrama — unless it concerns cars?

We can drop billions and billions of dollars on what seem to be perpetual freeway improvement projects without so much as a whisper of debate, but when it comes to implementing a basic rail transit system or rebuilding the airport the backlash is deafening.

The latest is the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the proposal to replace the 40-year-old Kansas City International Airport and its three concourses with an estimated $1.2 billion single-terminal plan. To hear some people, you’d think they wanted to tear down the Country Club Plaza.

But it’s not just about the physical facility, although to many people, KCI and its gloomy, concrete-bunker design that was so hip in the early 1970s look pretty tired these days.

As was reported last week in this column, our air service has taken a serious hit in recent years because of economic decisions made by the airlines that have nothing to do with the facility itself.

As airlines have tried to improve profitability by reducing flights and downsizing planes, a strategy called “capacity discipline,” medium-size airports such as KCI have been particularly harmed, according to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s International Center for Air Transportation.

The report found we’ve lost 30.2 percent of our flights, 24.6 percent of our seats and five airlines since 2007.

That’s the equivalent of losing the activity of the entire Oklahoma City airport, according to the MIT chart.

I got capacity disciplined just last month on a flight out of Denver International operated by United Express.

After arriving in a comfortable Airbus 320 jet from John Wayne Airport, a medium-size airport in suburban Los Angeles, my wife and I had to find our way to the end of the United terminal in Denver, walk down steps, follow a long corridor and then stroll outside — fortunately in the Colorado sunshine — to a 74-seat turboprop.

It was parked by all the other turboprops — heading to Wyoming, Montana and other small destinations. As the propellers started spinning, I was wondering: How it had gotten to the point where I was flying between two major metropolitan areas on this?

“I agree with you,” said Tom McKenna, director of marketing at KCI. “We’ve had these conversations with United.

“It’s an effective aircraft for them to operate, but we’re not big fans of the small regional jets, much less the turboprops.”

McKenna had no quarrel with the results of the MIT study — although he was a bit curious about how Omaha, Neb., was listed as a medium-size hub. But he added we were particularly harmed when Republic Airways bought Midwest and Frontier Airlines four years ago, cutting flights and seats.

But how a new airport would win back some of that air service is speculative at best.

“It’s difficult for a single airport to reverse a national trend,” McKenna said, “but we do look to make as many improvements as we can.

“We want to create an environment for success as an operation and for the carriers who operate here. That’s one of the driving forces for the single-terminal concept.”

And while KCI officials make several trips a year to airline events to lobby for better service, the idea of offering direct subsidies to attract more flights or bigger planes has not been part of the game plan. There have been some joint marketing ventures in the past, though.

“We need airlines to determine opportunities, and there have to be business opportunities that make sense,” McKenna said.

In addition, when it comes to attracting nonstop flights to overseas destinations such as Europe and the Far East, KCI alone isn’t able to compete. Denver recently launched a nonstop flight to Tokyo to join its other international destinations in England and Germany.

“International subsidies are usually not done by airports,” McKenna said. “They are usually the state or an economic development agency or the city itself. They’re multimillion-dollar subsidies that are usually backed for corporations.”

And with Kansas City sending about 300 travelers daily to all of Europe and even fewer to Asia, a new terminal probably would not include a departure gate for Frankfurt, London or Tokyo any time soon.

Still, McKenna said Gov. Jay Nixon plans to meet with officials at British Airways next week in Paris to try to interest the airline in Kansas City and St. Louis.

On another note, though some believe KCI needs improvement, particularly handling security, it doesn’t seem there’s much of a market for the substantial expansion of restaurants, shops and bars that advocates say a new terminal could provide.

Most of the airports that have large amounts of space devoted to retail, such as Denver, also are major hubs where many thousands of passengers connect to different flights daily and have time on their hands to eat or shop.

At KCI, only 250,000 passengers annually connect to different flights, raising the question of just how much business all that potential new retail would attract.

All that said, there is a real need for a clear-eyed, thoughtful discussion about the future of KCI.

The answer is probably somewhere between the Aviation Department’s billion-dollar vision and the knee-jerk, populist reaction of the current “Friends of KCI” petition drive.

And maybe a little of that money could be used to subsidize a decent jet from Denver to Kansas City. That turboprop would look a lot better on the tarmac in Cheyenne.

To reach Kevin Collison, call 816-234-4289 or send email to kcollison@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/kckansascity.

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