What about the airlines?
Members of the City Council and the audience pondering Kansas City’s unusual single-terminal airport proposal sought more assurances Thursday that Southwest and the rest are fully engaged and committed.
Representatives of the airlines have not been part of the public panel discussions and have issued only sparse public statements since the city and Burns & McDonnell announced a plan to privately finance and build a public airport.
Reassurances that the airlines approve of the plans highlighted the second public hearing on the airport project before another full house Thursday morning, this time in City Hall.
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The hearing occurred before new developments arose when the City Council received a letter from a major Los Angeles-based engineering firm, AECOM, requesting an opportunity to make a competitive bid for the airport project.
“Obviously they (the airlines) have been engaged all along,” said Mike Talboy, Burns & McDonnell’s director of government affairs. The designers met earlier this week with airline representatives, he said, “and there are promising indicators they are OK” with the process.
Burns & McDonnell and the city are proposing a nearly $1 billion plan to construct a single terminal at Kansas City International Airport on the site of the closed Terminal A, which would be the exclusive role of the Kansas City firm to design, build and secure with private financing.
The City Council is weighing a proposed memorandum of understanding that would launch the process toward a potential public vote in November.
City Manager Troy Schulte told the council that the city is working with the airlines on a written agreement of their support of the memorandum of understanding before the council plans to vote on the memorandum June 15.
Late Thursday afternoon, Southwest Airlines spokesman Dan Landson sent a written statement to The Star.
“We’re pleased and supportive of the plans to continue efforts to advance the airlines’ recommendation from April 2016 to build a single terminal at Kansas City International Airport,” Landson said.
He called the proposal by Burns & McDonnell innovative and potentially cost-saving because such partnerships deliver projects more quickly.
“We are very interested in learning more about this proposal and look forward to becoming engaged in the planning process,” he said. “Ultimately, this plan would require an agreement with the airlines that serve KCI in order to proceed.”
The scope of the design all along has relied on the airlines’ needs, Burns & McDonnell attorney David Frantze said in Thursday’s hearing.
The airlines want the single terminal, he said. The airlines proposed the lease structure in which they will bear and distribute the costs if revenues don’t keep pace with annual debt payments, Frantze said.
The number of gates in the design — 35, with possible expansion to 42 — is what airlines think are needed, and the airlines — along with the city — would be involved in, and approve or reject, design components as a terminal is built.
Some onlookers have raised concerns that the new airport design would reduce and restrict the size of the airport, potentially curbing future growth.
Prior to Thursday’s hearing, David Long, the deputy aviation director for properties and commercial development, told The Star that the current three-terminal airport, when airline travel and the number of airlines was at its peak, had capacity for 51 jetways and never used more than 45 at one time.
Questioners at the hearing also wanted to know what happens with the deal if any — or all — of the airlines fail.
The deal with the airlines, Schulte said, would be a collective agreement that applies to any airline leasing space at the airport.
“If any airline drops out,” Schulte said, “the remaining airlines will adjust to meet their obligations.”
The council raised a question, unanswered from the previous public hearing: What if the airlines go broke? Who pays for the debt?
Private holders of the debt would suffer the financial loss, Frantze said. But such a doomsday scenario is unlikely because there will always be flights going in and out of KCI, he said, and whatever airlines are carrying that traffic would be covering the costs
Said Talboy: “If all four major (airline) carriers go under, we have bigger problems.”
Other questions Thursday raised concern about the costs the city is absorbing to craft a memorandum of understanding and other preparations ahead of the planned vote in November — which could scuttle the deal if voters don’t approve it.
City Councilwoman Teresa Loar raised the possibility of going to voters first on the broad concept of a privately financed, single-terminal construction before absorbing the high legal costs and other demands in creating a memorandum of understanding.
“All of the letters and calls I’m getting,” Loar said, “are telling us to slow down, take time.”
The city could go to the voters at any time, said Galen Beaufort, the senior associate city attorney for Kansas City.
The rationale for seeking a memorandum of understanding first, Frantze said, is that it will give Burns & McDonnell time to secure commitments for the private financing that will allow it to proceed with designs. The city could show voters designs for the terminal and also assure them that the project has financial backing before they go to the polls.
The city is holding a third public hearing at 5:30 p.m. June 5 at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center, 3700 Blue Parkway, in Kansas City. There will also be another public hearing in City Hall about 9:30 a.m. June 8.