Thinking big and small on the KCI airport debate

03/07/2014 3:00 PM

03/08/2014 6:35 PM

My plane from KCI to Dallas was an hour and a half late. High winds in Denver delayed the aircraft, and by the time I got to the airport, the departure time kept creeping back 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there.

It was 8 p.m., and the terminal Starbucks had just shut down. But lo and behold, inside the Southwest Airlines gate area, another Starbucks outlet was still pumping out the java and an upstairs restaurant, the Pork and Pickle, was bustling with delayed passengers hungry for a bite and a beer.

Eventually I got to Dallas, two hours later than scheduled, disembarked through gate No. 1 at the newly refurbished Love Field and rolled my bag past half of the 20 gates, through the central food-court and shops area, down to ground transportation — about eight full minutes to my ride waiting at the curb.

Aha, I thought, maybe our scruffy KCI does remain the “most convenient airport” on the planet. At KCI it had taken a mere three minutes to get from the Terminal B garage to the security entrance of my gate.

Everybody has anecdotal evidence to offer the ongoing civic debate about how to upgrade Kansas City’s 41-year-old airport.

But anecdotes will not solve what is arguably the most significant design issue facing the metro area. The long civic conversation, which could go on for another two years, has had the benefit of making us think seriously about what we need and what we want.

Airlines want happy customers, or at least customers who’ll continue to come back. Locals want convenience. City officials and business leaders want to make a big impression, in hopes of attracting more business to town.

Balancing those competing desires is not easy. And design means far more than decor, especially for those who think deeply about public space and how people relate to the built environment.

For instance, there’s a downside to that convenience, says Earl Santee, a principal of Populous, the Kansas City-based global architectural firm. If you move people too quickly through an airport, they don’t have time to notice what has been done to make an impression.

Santee’s firm is just out from under a non-compete clause with its former corporate affiliate, HOK, and it recently opened a Boston office focusing on aviation projects. So he’s been thinking about airports in recent years. And he wonders if KCI planners are thinking big enough.

There’s a lot of land around KCI, and a master plan could envision how to address revenue-generating development outside but complementary to the airport. Or, he wonders, could an airport hotel take the place of the now-closed Terminal A as the other two terminals get refurbished or reimagined.

Santee believes an airport is a vital gateway to any city, and it should set the tone for visitors and tell a story about the city. Although KCI has served the city well, he said, “the story of Kansas City with the current configuration is not being told.”

Then again, for all its bright efficiency Love Field in Dallas, which is frequently held up as a new standard for modern airports, could be replicated anywhere. Except for a barbecue joint and a Texas tchotchke shop it doesn’t say much about Dallas.

My return trip changed my impression of Love Field, however. Rental car shuttle to terminal: two minutes. Through Pre-TSA security in five minutes, and three more to my gate. Not bad. Convenience rules.

The Airport Terminal Advisory Group will hold another community meeting Monday night (6 p.m., Southeast Community Center, 4201 E. 63rd St.) and another hearing at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday at City Hall, where intriguing ideas about the airport could always turn up.

The airport debate is far from over. Public discussion about the city and its future is always welcome.

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