Yael T. Abouhalkah

KCI needs a new director and a new plan for upgrades

Updated: 2014-01-22T23:55:48Z

By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH

The Kansas City Star

As the furor grows over the future of Kansas City International Airport, two issues have become pretty clear.

Kansas City needs a new aviation director.

And it needs a comprehensive new plan for upgrading the 40-year-old airport.

Director Mark VanLoh does not have the public credibility to lead on this extremely crucial project.

Last year, Mayor Sly James appointed a citizens commission to review KCI’s future after VanLoh’s costly, single-terminal plan ran into stiff public headwinds.

Last week, airline representatives appeared and did not, contrary to what VanLoh has said before, embrace plans for a new terminal.

VanLoh also previously promoted an idea, since discarded because of its tremendous cost, to move the main terminal far to the south of where the current terminals sit.

A new aviation director would be a positive step because it could allow Kansas City to more or less start over with a different leader, at the top, guiding the process of improving KCI.

That person, selected by City Manager Troy Schulte, ought to have a recent track record of helping another community decide how it wanted to update or enhance its facilities. A different aviation director could have a better chance of persuading the public to approve whatever proposal emerges for KCI.

It could take a long time for a good plan to emerge.

First, the citizens group has to give its recommendation to the City Council, now scheduled to occur in April.

James and the council then will have to ponder the panel’s findings and decide whether they have something compelling enough to bring to voters.

Even under the best of circumstances, that could take many months to work out, so an election might not be held until late 2014 or sometime in 2015.

Here’s a more sobering analysis: It could could take up to two years to work out a truly transformative plan, especially if a new director with more credibility is brought in to lead KCI and spend lots of time working with the airlines and other interested parties on what that proposal should look like.

Given the uproar that will result from any ideas on how to alter KCI, city officials should slow down and make sure they give the public something that will bolster the airport’s standing as an important community asset for decades to come.

But what should that entail?

On one side are plenty of people who prefer the status quo, largely because it’s convenient for local people using KCI.

Way on the other side — as the citizens committee will hear next Tuesday — are many in the business community who are ready to embrace a new terminal to fix what they consider to be a dowdy front door for visitors and company executives thinking of coming to Kansas City.

Right now I’m pretty much in the middle.

Some major improvements are need to make the current two terminals more physically appealing inside and outside. More amenities, such as restrooms and places to eat, are still required at various points inside the terminals.

Added to that list are other important infrastructure improvements that most people don’t see, such as taking care of environmental problems at the current airport.

The cost of that wish list of upgrades could range from a few hundred million dollars up to $600 million or so. That’s still far less than the original and expensive single terminal plan for KCI.

Still, without a new aviation director — and without a definitive and deserving upgrade proposal — the airport’s future will remain very much up in the air.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/YaelTAbouhalkah.

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