New KCI will be bigger than planned — but opening likely delayed

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Before the first shovel hits the ground, Kansas City International Airport's new single terminal is getting bigger.

City and airline officials announced Thursday that the new facility will open with 39 gates rather than the 35 originally planned. They said the expanded design reflects faster-than-forecast growth in passenger traffic.

City aviation director Patrick Klein called the revised gate count "good news," meaning more flight choices for passengers.

But it also means Kansas City will have to wait a little longer for opening day, originally set for November 2021. Neither the city nor airport developer Edgemoor would commit to a new opening date.

"I don't want to be constrained by a date," Klein said.

The Kansas City Council voted 8-5 on February 8, 2018 to accept a memorandum of understanding with KCI developer Edgemoor.

The decision to add more gates will mean a series of delays, possibly 60 days each, to parts of the original timetable. Regulatory approvals from the FAA, and a new "use and lease" agreement — establishing what the airlines will be willing to pay to use the new terminal — will be pushed from August into early October of this year.

Edgemoor's determination of a lump sum price and a final development deal between the city and developer, set for mid-September, will slide to at least mid-November. Construction, scheduled to begin late this year, could also be pushed back.

Original plans for the new terminal were based on long-term estimates of passenger traffic made in 2013. They showed traffic growing 1.9 percent annually through 2030.

Since 2013, however, annual growth has averaged 3.9 percent, lifted by the addition of new air carriers serving KCI and the overall improved health of the airline industry. In 2017, 11.5 million passengers traveled through KCI, according to city figures.

Officials said the expanded plans took shape over the last two months, since a divided council approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Edgemoor — the first step toward a final development agreement. As initial design work started, the city, Edgemoor and the airlines said they re-examined original assumptions to make sure they were sound.

"We need more gates," Steve Sisneros, Southwest Airlines' director of airport affairs, told the City Council at its weekly business session Thursday. "Our gate requirements ... are larger than they were two years ago."

He was joined at the session by representatives of United, Delta and American, the other major carriers that use KCI.

The new design will still allow for future expansion to 42 gates.

The additional gates will boost the price of the project, originally estimated at $964 million. That price tag, now three years old, was bound to increase even without the new gates.

Taxpayer money will not be used for the new terminal, which will be financed by Edgemoor. The company will be paid back by revenue from airlines and other airport users.

Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, who voted against entering the MOU with Edgemoor, agreed that the extra gates were good news, but expressed concern about the delay it has triggered.

"I guess I'm trying to understand how the addition of four gates pushes the schedule to get to a lump sum price by 60 days," he said. "To me that seems a little bit over the top."

While the addition of four gates may not seem like a huge change, Klein and Sisneros told the council that it will necessitate reconsideration of all aspects of the terminal's design, including critical systems like baggage handling.

"We have to look at every system in the building to make sure it's all right-sized before we move on," Klein said.

Mayor Sly James said he was not fazed by the timetable.

The number of gates was a contentious issue during last year's campaign for the ballot question proposing the single-terminal design. Some critics wondered whether the plan provided for enough of them.

The original "three-horseshoe" airport opened in 1972 with gates numbered to 90 but never used nearly that many. Terminal A was closed in 2014. The city currently leases 31 gates to carriers at KCI.

"I never could understand why we were going down to 35," said Councilwoman Teresa Loar.

As the KC metro area says goodbye to an action-packed 2017, it also looks ahead to plenty of plans that could see progress or setbacks in 2018.