A website extolling the virtue of a new single terminal at KCI wastes no time getting to its point: “A Better KCI means increased access to more destinations.”
The statement reflects an attractive rallying cry for a new terminal — that it will lead to more flight options — ahead of the Nov. 7 vote for the $1 billion project.
“The thinking was the airlines have said without a new KCI, they won’t ramp up operations,” said Pam Whiting, spokeswoman for the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, which put together the betterkci.org website with the Kansas City Area Development Council.
The question of flight options, however, is complicated and nuanced.
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A new terminal, by itself, won’t lead to more direct flights to more destinations.
“That’s probably fair,” said Steve Sisneros, senior director of airport affairs for Southwest Airlines, the dominant airline flying in and out of KCI.
But, Sisneros is quick to add, Southwest can’t significantly increase flight options if Kansas City sticks with its current three-terminal design.
“The facility actually limits our growth, currently,” Sisneros told The Star this week. “There’s no guarantee to what we may able to add.”
Jolie Justus, a Kansas City councilwoman who is the most vocal proponent of new airport terminal on the Kansas City Council, is similarly careful when she’s asked about flight options at community forums on KCI.
“What I say is, number one, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have said publicly ... they cannot give us more flights based on the current configuration,” Justus said. “They’re throttled, was the language I think they used.”
At the same time, Justus said that airlines cannot commit to new flights as a result of a new single terminal.
“I don’t believe any for-profit company is going to make a promise that we are going to give you more flights,” Justus said.
Airline route plans are primarily dictated by basic economics: If there’s enough demand for a flight route from one airport to another, then airlines can make money by providing a supply of routes to meet that demand.
Both Sisneros and Justus said a new terminal could lead to circumstances where Kansas City looks more attractive to airlines when making decisions about future routes.
One example is the ability to connect more flights through a new KCI terminal. Right now, only about 4 percent of the passenger traffic in Kansas City is making a connection through KCI. But the experience for those passengers — particularly if they have to leave the gate area they arrived in and re-enter security at another gate or another terminal — is enough that the airlines have balked at connecting in Kansas City.
It’s off-putting enough that Southwest has added flights at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, even though the cost per passenger in St. Louis is about double what it is in Kansas City.
“Yet we’re adding more services there because the customer experience at KCI is so bad,” Sisneros said.
If a single terminal at KCI can connect more passenger flights from other cities, it could lead to more frequency of existing flights or turn existing seasonal routes at KCI into year-round offerings.
“Kansas City is in a perfect geographical location for this, particularly for the Southwest network,” Sisneros said. “You’re perfectly situated.”
Sisneros said he hopes Kansas City voters approve a new terminal in November. It’s something of a reversal from 2014 when representatives from Southwest testified before the mayoral-appointed Airport Terminal Advisory Group that a new terminal could increase costs.
“Higher cost can lead to less service, not more,” said then-Southwest executive vice president Ron Ricks in 2014.
Sisneros said Southwest then studied KCI during a two-year process and arrived at a different conclusion.
“Our opinion on that is we didn’t know enough,” Sisneros said. “Now that we have been engaged in the due diligence required to make these decisions, we have all the facts.”