The path to building a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport remains uneven. Squabbling over the developer hasn’t ended; the design remains unfinished; groundbreaking is still months away.
On the other hand, voters have approved the project. Travelers should be confident a new terminal will be built and open for business roughly four years from now.
The Kansas City region should use that time to rethink how the airport is managed. The goal? Establish a new regional airport authority, with members from both sides of the state line, to oversee airport operations and finance.
The recommendation begins with a simple observation: KCI is a regional asset. According to one survey, nearly nine out of 10 airport users live outside of Kansas City. Less than one-third of passengers live in Missouri.
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Yet the airport is owned and operated solely by the City of Kansas City and its City Council. Aviation is simply a department of city government.
Kansas City has done a relatively good job managing KCI over the years. But this summer’s chaotic terminal selection process and public vote prove supervision and oversight of a regional asset should truly be regional, with all stakeholders at the table.
That’s where an airport authority, drawn from the entire region, can help.
Roughly one-third of the nation’s high-traffic airports are run by an independent airport authority. Indianapolis, Louisville, Omaha and Minneapolis are among the communities that assign airport oversight to an independent commission.
Other cities are moving to that model, experts say. It allows elected and appointed officials to focus exclusively on airport issues. An airport authority can speed up decision-making and can be more transparent than city control.
In our region, a true multi-state airport authority would also give a voice to airline customers now largely excluded from aviation discussions. An airport authority would provide an avenue for residents of Johnson, Wyandotte, Clay, Leavenworth and Platte Counties to weigh in on questions of convenience and design at the new airport.
Ground transit issues might be addressed differently with regional buy-in. Development around KCI might be enhanced if four U.S. senators and four House members had a defined stake in the airport’s future.
Kansans can relax: A regional airport authority doesn’t translate to taxpayer support. KCI is an enterprise department, which means it operates on fees it collects. No taxpayer money is involved from either side of the state line.
A regional airport authority would also help make decisions at KCI more transparent. Last week, the airport announced a decision by Icelandair to provide nonstop service at KCI, the first transatlantic flight ever at the airport.
KCI officials offered Icelandair a package of incentives to bring the flight here. While we have no quarrel with that decision, incentives of any type should be subject to public review and discussion. An airport authority makes that more likely.
To be sure, there are reasons that Kansas Citians would look at a regional airport authority with some skepticism.
Workers at the airport — including firefighters who are part of the rescue team — might worry that their jobs would be jeopardized by Kansas members of the authority. City Hall might worry its ability to borrow money from the airport would be curtailed by independent management.
Kansas Citians also might worry that minority hiring goals would be reduced under broader supervision.
Those issues can be addressed. Safeguards for Kansas Citians could be built into any agreement to expand governance at KCI.
That brings us to how a new airport authority might be structured.
In most cities that use them, the airport authority owns the terminal and grounds. But not all. St. Louis, for example, has an airport commission, but ownership and ultimate control of St. Louis Lambert International Airport are still in the city’s hands.
Kansas City could consider a similar approach. The city would keep the airport and grounds but turn over management to an authority appointed by county commissioners and legislators.
The authority could reserve additional seats for Kansas Citians. It might have one member from each of five regional counties and six members from inside the city limits. That would give other communities a voice while retaining Kansas City’s leadership position at KCI.
Oversight boards and commissions aren’t always a good idea. Kansas City’s police board, for example, takes power away from elected leaders and hands it to the governor. That’s a mistake.
But an airport that’s critical to the entire region needs a governance structure reflecting that reality.
The area has experience in these matters. Jackson County has a state-created sports authority to oversee the stadiums. We have a Port Authority. We have a multi-county transportation authority. A bistate commission rebuilt Union Station.
Yet our most important regional asset remains a Kansas City-only function. That should change.
It will take time. This will likely involve the legislatures in both states and the federal government. The details will take careful study and debate.
But a 21st-century airport needs 21st-century leadership. The KCI Airport Authority should be in place by 2022 when the doors of the new terminal swing open for the first time.