Fly into or out of the 45-year-old Kansas City International Airport and it is all but impossible not to notice:
It’s cramped and dark.
There’s scant food, scant retail, limited technology and, in terms of atmosphere, terminals B and C (the two of the three horseshoe-shaped terminals in use) look like drab bus stations with planes. One traveler once likened the muscular, concrete architecture to a North Korean prison.
But one aspect of KCI that travelers consistently rave about? Convenience.
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It’s the widespread and powerfully held impression — particularly among locals — that no air terminal of equal size could possibly make getting on or off an airplane so quick and easy. A prime concern is that if Kansas Citians vote on Nov. 7 to replace the current configuration with a new, $1 billion single terminal (paid for using airport fees and $0 in taxes), then KCI’s beloved convenience will be lost.
But is KCI truly that much more convenient than other, newer single air terminals? The brief answer for those in a hurry: No.
Not in steps taken. Not in time spent from one’s car to the gate, or gate to the car, or through security.
That’s according to the numbers charted by The Star during an admittedly mad-dash recent journey to three cities’ newer terminals. All, built since 2005, are similar to what is being proposed for KCI in general design, number of passengers and gates, security and parking layouts.
We counted steps. We logged minutes.
Starting in Kansas City, and then over the next 3 1/2 days, a Star reporter and photographer flew into and out of Indianapolis International Airport (terminal opened in 2008), North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham International Airport (newest terminal finished in 2011) and into Southwest Florida International Airport near Fort Myers (opened in 2005) before flying home.
We rented cars and parked in short-term parking. We walked to the terminal and its ticketing kiosks. We printed out tickets, checked a bag with agents, walked to TSA security and on to our gates. When our flights arrived at the various destinations, we counted the steps and time it took to walk from the gate to the baggage carousel and then out the door and to the middle of short-term parking.
We also looked at conveniences that can’t be measured in numbers: enticing restaurants and shops, electronic outlets and atmosphere.
Only once did KCI far outperform the other terminals. It was our last data point on our return to Kansas City.
We walked from our Delta Airlines gate to baggage claim, grabbed our bag and headed out the door in 100 steps and 1 minute.
Yes, that’s right, 1 minute. Our bag was waiting in the carousel, steps away from the gate. It was only 2 more minutes and about 200 more steps to get to the car.
It was frankly so remarkable — unlike anything we had experienced in decades of flying in and out of KCI — that one could consider it a crazy anomaly, a rogue bit of data, not worthy of counting. But even if the time were tripled, it was fast.
For others, it’s evidence of exactly how convenient the current KCI terminals can be.
“For me,” said Greg Yemm of Overland Park, seated recently at a gate in Indianapolis and about to board a flight back to KCI, “I love landing and getting out to my car in five, 10 minutes and off I go.”
That said, Yemm, who travels frequently as vice president of a manufacturing company, said that if he were a Kansas City, Mo., resident, he’d vote to raze what exists and build new.
“I think that for our city,” he said, “for all that our city has done, it would be very nice to have a real, world-class airport. We have a world-class convenient airport, but I think there’s a difference.”
Comparing apples to apples
A fair question is why we picked the airports we did.
Why not pick more frequently traveled terminals like those in Atlanta, Minneapolis or Newark, N.J.?
We nixed those because they’re massive. Comparing the proposed KCI terminal to Atlanta would be like comparing an apple to a watermelon.
More than 100 million passengers fly in and out of Atlanta’s airport, according to Airports Council International data, with 38 million and 40 million out of Minneapolis and Newark. KCI serves 11 million.
Atlanta’s terminals cover 6.8 million square feet. KCI’s proposed H-shaped terminal would be 753,000 square feet — the equivalent of putting terminals B and C together.
We chose Indianapolis, Raleigh-Durham and Southwest Florida because, like KCI, they’re all medium-sized airports. All had newer terminals. Each serves roughly the same number of yearly passengers, between 8.5 million and 11 million.
The proposed KCI is to have 35 gates with room for expansion. The others have around the same.
Like the other three airports, the proposed KCI terminal calls for a parking garage directly across from the entrance. It would provide 6,500 spaces, triple the number in either of the parking decks across from the current KCI terminals.
Just like the proposed KCI terminal, the three terminals we visited are two-story: Ticket check-in at the top, baggage claim and exit on the bottom. Separate roadways serve each.
We especially chose Indianapolis because, when proponents of the new KCI terminal lay out their vision, they invariably cite Indianapolis as their premier example.
Terminal chic: Wolfgang Puck and airport art
Made of clear glass and a web of soaring white steel supports, Indianapolis’ U-shaped terminal was built for $1.1 billion. It might remind Kansas Citians of the light-filled central atrium of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, but on a far grander scale.
Each year, the Indy terminal is ranked either first or second in J.D. Power’s annual North America Airport Satisfaction Study. All three airports we visited are in the top 10, while KCI doesn’t crack the top 20.
Travelers find it eye-popping, entering the terminal’s central plaza covered by a roof of glass, where 118 sky-blue aluminum disks (the art piece is titled “Jet Stream”) dangle like so many clouds or falling leaves.
More than three dozen permanent modern-art pieces are on display. (On the bridge between the terminal and parking garage, the ceiling above a moving walkway is fixed with an array of illuminated disks that flash from blue to red for every passenger who passes beneath).
There’s so much art, including traveling exhibits, that the Indianapolis Airport Authority published a museum-quality book featuring its collection as well as recipes from some of its 20 restaurants: red-pepper meatballs from Harry & Izzy’s, tomato artichoke soup from Café Patachou, butterscotch pudding from Wolfgang Puck Express.
The place features live music on the first Friday of every month. School choirs sing there during the holidays. Some 22 retail shops include the typical vendors that sell newspapers, gum and coffee. There’s also a Brooks Brothers, wine bar and a spa that offers full-body massages.
For those who define “convenience” as also including amenities, Indy’s terminal is often held out as a gold standard for medium-sized airports. It provides free Wi-Fi, with electronic USB and power outlets in seats at every gate.
As for Raleigh and Southwest Florida? They’re hardly as grand, but certainly offer more amenities than KCI now.
Raleigh’s prime Terminal 2, which handles 90 percent of flights, is shaped like a glider wing in one long strip.
It features a centralized public entryway for ticketing and check-in. Like KCI now, there’s barely a handful of places to shop or eat on the public side of security: a Starbucks, a Panopolis.
But once passengers pass through a single TSA security checkpoint, they can use moving walkways to speed to their gates to the left or right. A vaulted roof is supported by a series of arched wood beams. Lights pours in from above.
The concourses are lined with shops and restaurants like California Pizza Kitchen, Camden Food Co., Carolina Ale House, 42nd St. Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill. They also have Wi-Fi and power outlets at the seats.
The Southwest Florida terminal near Fort Myers is, fittingly, shaped like Poseidon’s trident. It’s all white, with an off-white tile floor (no moving walkways), and the piped in music (Kenny G-like saxophone on our visit) gives it the feel of a beach mall. Each prong of the trident is a separate concourse with its own TSA security gate.
Whereas Indy has food and retail on both sides of TSA security and Raleigh has it mostly after security, Southwest Florida’s terminal offers more prior to security. They’re mostly standard places like Dunkin’ Donuts, Quiznos, a Shula’s Bar & Grill. Outlets for electronics were fewer, and the WiFi was spottier.
But the point of an airport is not to eat or shop, it’s to get people in and out quickly.
In that regard, there was no appreciable difference between the newer, single terminals we visited and the current KCI.
Parking to check-in
Full disclosure: Never, at any of the air terminals we visited — including KCI — did we travel during peak traffic.
Check-in and security lines at KCI during some morning flights are notoriously long, snaking 50 or 100 feet down the corridor. We didn’t experience that at KCI or the other airports. So the comparison seemed fair.
On the morning we arrived at KCI, check-in was a breeze — two minutes to grab a bag from the trunk, walk in from short-term parking, and five minutes to print out a ticket at a kiosk and check a bag with the agent: 7 minutes in all.
Indy, Raleigh and Florida were similar.
Parking garages were all a few hundred steps across from the terminal entrances. At 1.2 million square feet, Indy’s terminal is, in fact, three times larger than either of the current KCI terminals and 40 percent larger than the proposed replacement. But a moving walkway in a sky bridge made getting from Indy’s parking garage to the terminal that much faster.
Parking to check-in at Indy: 11 minutes. (There was a line)
In Raleigh, whose 900,000-square-foot terminal is bigger than that proposed for KCI: 7 minutes
In Florida, at 800,000 square feet and also bigger: 8 minutes.
Again, lines at the newer, single terminals were no slower than at the current KCI. All had different security layouts.
KCI has TSA security checks at multiple, individual gates. In 2016, KCI was among airports with the fewest security delays between the years 2006 and 2015, although Indy and Raleigh had fewer. Fort Myers had more. A delay was defined as wait times of more than 20 minutes.
For us, the TSA check at KCI moved much faster: 6 minutes.
At Indy, it took 4. They have two checkpoints — one for each concourse — each with multiple screening devices.
TSA in Raleigh is much like what is being proposed for KCI. Passengers all wind their way through a large single, centralized check-point with multiple screening devices.
A major note about Raleigh. We nearly messed up.
After printing out the boarding pass and checking the bag, we suddenly realized that the flight we thought was leaving at 2:30 p.m. was actually leaving at 12:30 p.m., in only 45 minutes. And we still had to return the rental car.
That resulted in a rush out of the terminal, up the parking garage, to the car, and driving (less than a mile away) to the Hertz rental return. We hopped the bus back to the terminal.
There was a line for TSA. Plus the mass of electronics we carried alerted the TSA agents, who ended up double-checking a backpack and passing a wand over every device — cellphone, laptop, iPad, pedometer, voice recorder, microphone.
Time it took to get through TSA, nonetheless: 5 minutes. Time from Hertz drop-off to our gate, walking briskly: 9 breathless minutes. (Although we’d already checked in, so add 7 minutes. Locals said that 20 minutes total is more typical.)
In Southwest Florida, the terminal has three TSA checkpoints, one at the entrance of each concourse.
Time to get through TSA there: 6 minutes. The walk to each gate was short, 2 to 4 minutes.
Gate to baggage to car
With all the newer air terminals larger than the current KCI, we expected getting out and on our way would have taken a lot more time.
In Indy and Raleigh, moving walkways helped. The new KCI terminal would also have moving walkways covering the 800 feet between the entrance and the furthest concourse.
As noted, the time it took to leave the gate at KCI, grab a bag and go was remarkable — 1 minute from gate to out the door and 2 minutes more to the center of short-term parking: a 3 minute walk.
But even in much larger Indianapolis, it took 4 minutes to go from the gate to bag and out the door. It took another 6 to get to our car: 10 minutes total.
Raleigh took 10 minutes. South Florida took 7.
In both Indy and Florida, rental cars were available in the parking garage. In Raleigh, the lots were less than a mile away. Some had designated areas for Uber, Lyft or other ride-sharing services. Indy’s parking garage included electric cars for sharing through its BlueIndy service, and its $25 per day valet parking offers free charges for electric cars.
KCI’s proposed design does not include rentals in the parking garage but does include designated areas for ride-sharing, plus an undetermined number of ports to charge electric cars.
To be sure, convenience will hardly be the only issue guiding residents on whether to vote for a new, single terminal. City leaders insist that a new air terminal is going to be needed at some point as KCI continues to weather and age. Its price, although costing $0 in new taxes, will only increase over time, they say.
Those opposed to the terminal raise numerous objections, insisting that the city never seriously explored less expensive alternatives. They’ve questioned the necessity of a new terminal, its financing, as well as the process the city used when in September it chose Maryland-based Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate to develop the project, should it be approved by voters. Hometown firm Burns & McDonnell had also bid to build the terminal.
Some insist they simply like what they like — despite a new alternative, and no matter how convenient.