Southwest Airlines top boss: ‘KCI prohibits growth’

Gary Kelly, chairman of the board for Southwest Airlines
Gary Kelly, chairman of the board for Southwest Airlines

Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who finds himself in the final stretch of a nearly six-year quest for a single terminal at KCI, got a bit of help from Southwest Airlines top executive Gary Kelly on Friday, who made his own pitch for the project.

“Kansas City deserves the opportunity to grow and the airport prohibits growth,” said Kelly, chief executive and chairman of Southwest Airlines. He spoke before a gathering of 1,700 businesspeople at the Kansas City Area Development Council’s annual meeting at the Kansas City Convention Center.

Kelly and James shared the stage to make a push to business leaders to approve a $1 billion single terminal at KCI, which Kansas City voters will decide at the polls on Nov. 7.

Civic and business leaders have joined City Hall in its desire to see KCI’s terminal system overhauled; they say the airport that opened in 1972 is inefficient and gives a poor first impression to out-of-town travelers.

Political and corporate titans have sought to persuade skeptical Kansas City voters to support a new terminal in an election that figures to be close.

Southwest Airlines, as well, was initially skeptical of a single terminal, but has for the last two years advocated for the project. Kelly’s message Friday gave the effort more support.

“In the end the customers, will benefit from an improved physical airport experience in terms of amenities facilities and concessions,” Kelly said in an interview with The Star. “But also one would hope they would benefit from more flights, either in the present or the future.”

As the boss for the dominant airline serving KCI, Kelly is one person who could make the call about if Kansas City gets more flight options from a new terminal. But he stopped short of making that promise.

“Tell me what fuel prices will be in a year, tell me what the economy will be in a year, no one can predict the future,” Kelly said. “So there are no guarantees in life. However, ultimately, the cost of the airport is borne by the airlines. So we’re willing to take that risk and put our money on the line here and say this is the best investment for the future.”

Kelly added that Southwest, as a low-budget airline, is often in the position of trying to get other cities to hold back on airport spending if the airline doesn’t believe it’s a wise investment.

“In this case, we think it’s the exact opposite,” Kelly said. “You have a great city that deserves a great airport. It’s a very good risk to take, that it will be an enabler of future growth and we’re willing to get 100 percent behind it.”