Concerns about security have partly driven the push to build a new airport terminal to replace the three-terminal configuration at Kansas City International Airport.
But on Tuesday the regional head of the Transportation Security Administration said the current setup isn’t inefficient, nor does it have worrisome shortcomings. And building a single terminal wouldn’t greatly improve security, said John Della Jacono, the TSA’s security director for western Missouri.
In fact, the airport as it is now has some advantages over a single terminal if someone were to stage an attack like last fall’s fatal shooting at Los Angeles International Airport, Della Jacono said.
Because of the Kansas City terminals’ circular design and the fact that passengers arrive and depart from two terminals, fewer people might be hurt than in the large open space at many big airports, he told the KCI Terminal Advisory Group.
“Does our layout add some security?” Della Jacono said. “I think, yes, it does.”
Critics of the effort to replace the three KCI terminals with a single terminal of modern design were buoyed by Della Jacono’s testimony.
“He said what we’ve been saying a long time,” said Friends of KCI leader Dan Coffey. “It seems like they just can’t get anybody to support the single-terminal position except for the chamber of commerce and others like them.”
Kevin Koster, founder of SaveKCI.org and a member of the advisory board, said Della Jacono’s testimony took airport security “out of play” in the discussion. KCI was built before security checkpoints were required at American airports and has been retrofitted since.
Kansas City aviation director Mark VanLoh has said that a single checkpoint at a single terminal would be less costly to staff than the current seven checkpoints.
VanLoh, one of the prime advocates of a single terminal, declined to comment on Della Jacono’s testimony. Nor did he provide data at the request of The Star to show that the current system is inefficient on a cost-per-passenger basis.
“TSA has that information, especially as it relates to comparisons across airports,” a public relations consultant working for the Aviation Department said in an email. “If they cannot provide it to you, then neither can the folks at KCI.”
True, Della Jacono also did not provide the advisory group with figures comparing staffing costs at KCI with other airports.
However, he challenged assertions that the security operation at KCI is inefficient.
“That’s in the eye of the beholder,” he said.
Advances in screening technology and programs to prescreen frequent travelers now allow the TSA and its contractors to do as much or more with fewer workers.
He said KCI has some space limitations when it comes to security, “but we make it work.”
Some figures he did provide: Screeners at KCI process on average 150 passengers an hour at each of the 16 lanes at the seven checkpoints spread between Terminals B and C.
Employees of the private company that staffs those checkpoints, FirstLine Security, screen an average of 14,000 passengers a day. Passenger wait times averaged 10 minutes at checkpoints and probably would not change with a new terminal, he said.
“You can tell why the citizens of this city love their airport,” Della Jacono said. “They don’t wait.”
While conceding that the waits are occasionally longer at peak travel times, “it’s an anomaly,” he said.
Another security concern is the clear partitions that wall off the holding areas from the non-secure areas. They don’t reach the ceiling, which doesn’t meet current federal design guidelines.
The 10-foot gaps caused Della Jacono concern when he was transferred to Kansas City in 2008, he said. But screeners are trained to watch for objects being tossed into the secure waiting areas from people outside them.
A new single terminal would avoid the need for those partitions.
But a plan for renovating the existing terminals could extend the walls to the ceiling. That would require adding ductwork to air-condition the waiting areas.
Della Jacono also addressed concerns about the adequacy of the airport’s baggage screening systems for checked and carry-on bags, saying the airport now has “more than enough capacity.”
Mayor Sly James, who appointed the advisory group, has remained largely neutral on the terminal issue, and the statement released by his public affairs director on Tuesday reflected that.
“Security is clearly a very important aspect to consider as we proceed in planning for the future of KCI,” Joni Wickham said. “Our summation of TSA’s testimony is that they will work to secure any configuration of the airport.”
Also Tuesday, the advisory group heard from Jon Stephens, interim head of the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association.
Stephens said convention planners and travel writers often criticize the airport layout as being confusing and looking dated.
“Dinky,” one writer called it, Stephens said, while many said it was “not an effective front door.”
However, when asked by former Kansas City, Kan., mayor Joe Reardon whether the city lost any conventions because of its airport, Stephens said not to his knowledge.
The task force is expected to issue its recommendation to the mayor and City Council by the end of April.