Southwest Airlines celebrated 35 years at Kansas City International Airport on Wednesday, even as the airport’s future remains buffeted by political turbulence.
“Here in Kansas City, we really have something special,” Jane McAtee, Southwest’s regional leader for community affairs, told a crowd gathered at Terminal B’s Gate 39. She said Southwest has grown from two nonstop destinations at Kansas City International Airport in 1982 to serving 30 nonstop destinations from the airport today. It carried 4 million inbound and outbound passengers at KCI last year and has 55 percent of the airport’s seat capacity.
The airline is launching new direct service to Austin, Texas, in March and expanding to daily nonstop service to Pensacola, Fla., in June.
But the celebration comes even as KCI’s future remains in some doubt. City officials and the airlines, including Southwest, are touting the need for a new terminal to replace the 44-year-old existing terminals. But many residents don’t want to see significant change at the airport.
McAtee declined any comment about the airport debate, focusing on the airline’s support for Kansas City, including its many philanthropic efforts.
But Mayor Sly James was not shy about discussing the need for a terminal overhaul at KCI.
“This is an asset that we have to take care of,” James said, adding that the airlines can’t expand nonstop service in the way they’d like to with the current configuration. “We’re going to make it the most convenient new terminal in the country.”
James reminded the audience that when KCI initially opened, some people called it “Kansas City Inconvenient” because it was so far out. But now, people think of it as one of the most convenient airports around. He said a new terminal would not be like Atlanta, Denver or Chicago but could be modeled on something like Dallas Love Field, which he described as more efficient and comfortable.
Justin Meyer, deputy aviation director for air service, said he is talking with Southwest about adding nonstop flights to Raleigh-Durham, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, but the airline is concerned with small local market size. He said a single terminal that allowed for a better connecting experience could generate the passenger loads to add those flights, similar to what’s available in St. Louis.
Southwest is Kansas City’s largest carrier and has led a unanimous effort by all the air carriers at KCI in calling for a new airport terminal.
Last April, Southwest told the City Council that the airlines supported a new single terminal, estimated to cost $964 million in 2015 dollars. The airlines said they would help pay for the new construction, but they would not help finance a remodeling effort because they didn’t think it met their needs.
The airlines wanted the city to put the new terminal and financing to a public vote last summer. They emphasized that new terminal would not increase taxes in Kansas City and would be paid for with ticket fees, airline rents, parking revenues, concessions and other airport money. They insisted ticket fees would not rise alarmingly despite the new terminal cost.
But polling showed that was a nonstarter with frequent Kansas City voters, who said they prefer the existing configuration, which has a convenient car-to-gate distance for local travelers. So James put the new terminal conversation and vote on “pause” to allow the city to move forward with other priorities, such as an $800 million infrastructure bond package that will be on the April 4 ballot.
Still, the crucial airport decision is not going away, and the airlines are impatient for Kansas City to move forward with a new terminal, while interest rates remain low and before construction costs rise too much.
The airport discussion also took a more urgent turn after The Star revealed this month that Kansas was contemplating trying to build its own major airport. That idea remains highly speculative and probably impractical, because a whole new airport, including new runways, would cost $2 billion or more — far more than the cost of improving KCI.
But James said the threat from Kansas is a wake-up call. “Why would we build an inconvenient place? It makes no sense,” he said. “The lesson from Kansas is, if we don’t do something, somebody else will, and we’ll be on the losing end of the argument and that’s not where we ever want to be.”
The airport community conversations are likely to heat up again after April 4.