Business leaders call KCI ‘a little league airport’ that needs big changes

01/28/2014 10:01 AM

03/11/2014 11:35 AM

While many residents love Kansas City International Airport, business leaders said Tuesday it is increasingly outdated and stodgy, presenting a mediocre first impression to visitors and those considering doing business here.

“It’s kind of like an old and comfortable shoe,” Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce president Jim Heeter told the KCI Terminal Advisory Group.

He said many chamber members want a more modern airport that will attract and retain strong businesses and reflect the vibrant community it serves.

“As one of our CEOs put it,” Heeter said, “KCI ‘is the front door for our community … and does not project a dynamic, innovative, 21st century American city.’ ”

Bill Moran, who has a business recruiting nonprofit executives, agreed.

“We’re way behind what other airports are doing,” he told the airport task force. “We are a big league town … but we have a little league airport.”

The testimony Tuesday was in sharp contrast to much of the commentary from the public over the past year. Passionate passengers and Kansas City residents have resoundingly opposed the idea of an expensive new terminal at KCI and said they like the airport just the way it is.

Nonetheless, advisory committee members said it is important to hear from the business community because business travelers constitute one-half to two-thirds of the passengers at KCI.

Heeter said newer airports in cities such as Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; and Orlando, Fla., have personality, showcasing what’s best about their communities.

“You know where you are,” he said. “When you arrive at KCI, you don’t have a sense of place.”

Heeter said the airport lacks restaurants, shops and even ample restrooms that corporate executives are accustomed to finding in other big-city airports.

Bob Marcusse, president of the Kansas City Area Development Council, and Bill White, senior vice president of corporate communications for Sprint Corp., echoed Heeter’s concerns. They said KCI needs major upgrades in technology and close parking and needs to create the potential for more domestic and international flights.

Marcusse said he was aware of some examples where the airport was a factor in the city losing out on business opportunities, although he said he could not give specifics because of nondisclosure agreements.

White said that Sprint’s young executives, and the young people the corporation is trying to attract, want a much more contemporary airport with “power, power, power” for their cellphones and other high-tech devices.

He told the story of the company’s chief lobbyist, who was with a group of bankers, attorneys and entrepreneurs one night when their flight was delayed in Terminal A, which the airport has since shut down. All the shops closed by 6 p.m., and they were told they could take a shuttle to another terminal or the nearby Marriott hotel if they needed a meal.

White asked what kind of business message that sends about Kansas City “if things roll up at 6 p.m.”

Preliminary estimates are that a new terminal, close parking garage and other features could cost $1.2 billion, although aviation department officials have said they want to lower that price.

Heeter said his organization strongly supports the concept of a new terminal, although it is not calling for something extravagant.

“We don’t expect a new KCI to be a Taj Mahal,” he said. “We do want it to be affordable, practical, convenient, built to live a long life and adaptable.”

A major concern, the chamber president said, is that even crucial repairs and renovations to the existing terminals are estimated to cost between $500 million and $700 million.

He said the committee should seriously consider whether spending more in the next few years would save money in the long run and help the city build a state-of-the-art airport that would last an additional 40 years.

“The concern we have is that any renovation would be just a Band-Aid,” he told the group. “We don’t want to be having this discussion again in seven years.”

The testimony Tuesday was at odds with the last advisory committee meeting, in which Southwest Airlines representatives said that KCI is generally adequate and that a new terminal could drive up ticket prices. They said KCI already has nonstop service to about 50 destinations, which is very good for an airport that size, and there’s no guarantee that an expensive new terminal would bring any new flights, either domestic or international, to Kansas City.

But the business executives said they thought a new terminal could at least give Kansas City the potential to attract more nonstop domestic flights or international flights, which could bring more business growth in the city.

Moran said he’s had to travel to San Diego via Minneapolis and to Austin via Memphis, Tenn.

Aviation officials said Tuesday that KCI has lost nonstop flights in recent years to Austin; Columbus, Ohio; Oklahoma City; San Antonio; and Louisville, Ky. Frontier had also given up nonstop service to Reagan National in Washington, D.C., but Southwest announced Tuesday it will begin nonstop service to Reagan National on Saturday.

The airport has just a handful of international flights, with Air Canada going to Toronto and Frontier to Cancun, Mexico. Frontier also has limited winter service to Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico.

Kansas City aviation officials have also noted that the current two-terminal configuration is not conducive to attracting connecting flights in which Kansas City is the midpoint connection. That’s because passengers making a connection often have to go outside a secure gate area to get to another gate. Or they may even have to transfer to another terminal.

Out of more than 9 million passengers in 2013, only 268,000 were on connecting flights.

At least one advisory committee member was not persuaded by Tuesday’s testimony and criticisms of KCI.

Kevin Koster is a marketing executive who started the website SaveKCI.org. He said after Tuesday’s meeting that the business executives and clients he associates with appreciate KCI, especially the ease of getting from car to gate, and they don’t care so much about restaurants and other amenities.

“The people who’ve contacted me say a completely different story,” Koster said. “They still can make a connection, park their car and be at the gate in six minutes.”

He said he would be much less concerned about the image the airport projects than about airlines reducing nonstop flights at KCI because of the increased cost of doing business at a costly new terminal.

And he said the airport should be able to improve technology, security prescreening and other services within the existing terminal framework.

The advisory group has scheduled a public hearing on the airport’s future for Feb. 10 from 6 to 8 p.m., with the location to be announced. Its next group meeting will be at 7:30 a.m. Feb. 11 at City Hall, where aviation consultants from Frasca and Associates will provide comparisons between KCI and peer airports. The group is also expected to hear from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The committee expects to issue its recommendations on the future of KCI in late April.

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