Kansas City International Airport is beloved by many residents, especially for its convenient passenger dropoff and pickup areas. Fine, everyone acknowledges that. But look at the issue another way.
There’s simply no reason for the city or airlines that serve KCI — through whatever project they may be developing — to make it inconvenient for local travelers to use a renovated or new airport, especially if they want voters to ultimately endorse that plan.
At a City Council meeting last week, it became clear that officials have not yet agreed on what changes might be coming to KCI, even after seven months of private negotiations.
But during the update, a city consultant and a Southwest Airlines executive did release a summary highlighting this statement: “Doing nothing is not an option.”
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That viewpoint may disappoint many supporters of KCI’s current layout. They often criticize suggestions to build a single terminal, add more shops at the airport or reduce its large number of security lines.
However, as the update indicated, Southwest Airlines and other service providers recognize something needs to be done to provide an overall better experience for most passengers.
That’s why this crucial debate rages on: Should Kansas City plan to build a single terminal or should the city adapt and reuse the current terminals?
Steve Sisneros, director of airport affairs for Southwest — the dominant carrier at KCI — represented his airline and others at last week’s discussion. On a positive note, he said Southwest is “very bullish” on future growth of service at the airport.
However, Sisneros also downplayed the effect of facility improvements on air traffic, saying several times that the market drives what airlines do. In short, if more people want to fly to and from the Kansas City area, that would encourage airlines to bring in more flights.
Sheri Ernico, the city-hired strategic consultant from LeighFisher, reminded council members that KCI ranked poorly in concession revenue when compared with other airports. And while some critics don’t want to turn the airport into a shopping mall, she said passengers often expected these kinds of amenities at airports today.
The ongoing city-airline negotiations are not open to the public because the airlines have agreed to share proprietary information about how they use — and might use — KCI. If this data can help the city forge a great plan for KCI’s future, the secrecy makes more sense. Plus, voters will decide whether to accept or reject any plan that comes out of these discussions.
However, that would not excuse putting a sub-par plan before the public. Mayor Sly James and the council will have to thoroughly evaluate and suggest good changes to the proposal, if needed, before it gets on a ballot. They especially must make sure Southwest does not get a sweetheart deal that ultimately costs passengers more than it should.
Plans to build either a new terminal or make major upgrades would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. If voters approve a project, bonds would be issued for it, and then repaid in large part with user fees imposed on airline tickets, parking and concessions. No general tax dollars would be used for KCI improvements.
No big announcements came during the council session, and the deadline for doing something stretches to May 2016. However, City Manager Troy Schulte has indicated negotiations could wrap up sometime this summer, providing a blueprint for a new KCI.
After that, public interest in this matter could soar even higher.