KC Council members say visit with Southwest Airlines about KCI was instructive

Five Kansas City Council members visited Friday with top Southwest Airlines executives in Dallas and got an in-person report about airline preferences for a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport.

“They basically indicated they are willing to finance a new terminal,” Jolie Justus, the council’s Airport Committee chairwoman, said by telephone while waiting to board a flight back to Kansas City.

Justus said Southwest CEO Gary Kelly and other top executives also made clear that Southwest and other airlines are not willing to help pay for a different approach to airport improvements that doesn’t meet their operational requirements.

Members of the Airport Committee — Justus and council members Teresa Loar, Dan Fowler and Quinton Lucas — plus Councilman Jermaine Reed, traveled to Dallas for their first direct conversation with executives from Southwest, Kansas City’s largest air carrier. They also toured Dallas Love Field airport, which completed a $500 million modernization in 2014.

Kansas City area residents and travelers still remain highly conflicted about a proposal to demolish the existing Terminal A, which is closed, to make way for new single terminal and parking garage at KCI, at a cost of nearly $1 billion. But Kansas City’s new terminal would have more gates than the new Love Field building.

Many people don’t want to lose the convenience of the existing 43-year-old horseshoe terminals. But a leadership team of aviation officials, airlines and consultants have argued in recent months that a new terminal is slightly less expensive and much more practical and efficient to meet the changing needs of the airline business.

While the trip was very helpful, Loar said it did not change her mind. She has been a big skeptic about the new terminal plan.

“They certainly would like to see us build a new terminal,” Loar said.

But she added that Southwest officials were very cordial and made clear they are committed no matter what to serving Kansas City.

“They are partners with us, and we’ll work through this thing,” she said.

Lucas said the meeting allowed Southwest to make a strong case for a new terminal from a business standpoint and was very instructive. He said the tour of the new baggage systems at Love Field persuaded him that KCI’s baggage systems and other equipment and infrastructure need major overhaul.

But Lucas said he was impressed with the improvements that Love Field got for $500 million, and he wants to ensure that Kansas City’s airport modernization does not result in big ticket price increases or deter airlines from expanding their business in Kansas City. On the other hand, Lucas acknowledged Southwest’s point that Kansas City might lose flights if it does not undergo a major modernization.

“I think I do need more persuading,” Lucas said. “I’m reserving my final judgment.”

Fowler and Reed could not be reached for comment about their impressions of the visit.

The City Council is scheduled to hear a more detailed presentation from the airlines at 1:30 p.m. April 26 about the single-terminal recommendation, more refined costs and ways to pay for the project.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley