Kansas City should focus on planning for a single new terminal at Kansas City International Airport, airlines and the city’s aviation department consultant said Tuesday.
And, in a move that caught city officials by surprise, the airport study group said a brand new terminal would actually be cheaper to build than a major renovation of the existing terminals — a reversal of earlier expectations.
Now, said a spokesman for Southwest Airlines, it has become clear that a renovation project would cost more than $1 billion while a new terminal would cost significantly less than that.
But Steve Sisneros, director of airport affairs for Southwest, declined to provide more specific numbers.
“The airlines are not comfortable discussing cost estimates,” he said, adding that will eventually be part of a business agreement between the airlines and the city.
“The airlines have not agreed to anything yet,” Sisneros said.
The airport study group has been meeting for a year and last updated the city council in January. The group gave a PowerPoint presentation to the council in a special business session Tuesday, saying that it first had narrowed improvement concepts for KCI down from 27 to a final four, which included two plans for renovating the airport’s horseshoe design terminals and two plans for building a single new terminal.
After further study, the group recommended that the renovation concepts be tabled. The main considerations were convenience, security and affordability.
Other advantages of a new terminal would include a centralized baggage-screening operation and moving walkways, which are not possible in the current horseshoe designs of the two terminals still operating. It also would be easier to install new technologies in a new building.
A final, more detailed recommendation from the study group might not come until next spring.
And eventually, Kansas City residents will have a vote on any major airport improvements.
No members of the council pushed back strongly Tuesday, and Sisneros said later he felt the council had accepted the recommendation to table the renovation options.
“We still have the most convenient airport now,” said Councilman Scott Taylor. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have to make improvements.”
But Taylor said it will be important for the public to know what the estimated costs will be.
Councilman John Sharp said it also will be important going ahead that the public feels included in the process, whether through focus groups or some other manner.
Dan Coffey, the Friends of KCI leader who led a petition drive to force a public vote on changes at the airport, attended Tuesday’s meeting and later said he was not surprised by what he heard.
“I think this is the way the city was pushing it,” Coffey said. “I don’t think it’s over by any means. ... It’s all going to come down to what the cost is going to be and whether the voters are going to stand for it. If they’re going to tear down the existing terminals the voters are going to want to know what they’re going to replace them with, and it better be good.”
Mayor Sly James emphasized Tuesday that construction at the airport will not be paid for with taxes. Bonds issued for a project will be repaid with airline fees and concessions at the airport.
The future of KCI has stirred passionate debate between those who want to keep the simplicity and convenience of the existing design and those who say major improvements are needed to enhance security and amenities travelers want.
Opponents of a single new terminal said it would do away with the current convenience of being able to drive up to a gate. Aviation Department officials say advantages of a new terminal would include greater choice in concessions, more outlets for charging electronic devices and more spacious seating.
The city’s Aviation Department in 2012 recommended discarding the horseshoe terminal concept in favor of a new, single terminal. A backlash caused James to appoint a task force to look at the idea, and last year it also endorsed a single terminal, but that recommendation was not binding on the city council.
The task force concluded — and the airport study group agreed — that doing nothing is not an option because the 42-year-old airport has too much crumbling infrastructure, aging operating systems and insufficient gate and security space.
Aviation consultant Sheri Ernico, representing the Aviation Department on the airport study group, told the council Tuesday that all of the recommendations rest on complex traffic projections at KCI for 2025 and 2030. The conclusion is that KCI will require 35 gates by that time. It leases 29 to airlines currently.
Ernico said services at the existing airport create duplications and inefficiencies.
“We don’t need a bigger house,” Ernico said, “we just need to be configured differently.”
A new terminal would be built on the site of the current terminal A, which is not being used. That would minimize disruption of airport operations during construction.
Newly elected members of the city council were also invited to Tuesday’s briefing, but they did not participate in the discussion.
Assistant City Manager Pat Klein, who assisted in the briefing, said the study group’s final recommendation will include a financing plan, and then a public vote could be scheduled for next summer or fall. But even if everything goes smoothly from here on out, he said, the earliest a new terminal could open at KCI would be 2021.
Why a new terminal?
Benefits of a new terminal vs. major renovations, according to an airport study group:
▪ Easier and shorter construction time with fewer passenger disruptions.
▪ No limitations on ability to include new technologies for all airport functions.
▪ Avoids duplication of functions such as baggage systems, concessions, moving walkways and parking garages.
▪ Better flexibility of how space is used and more expansion potential.
▪ More passenger conveniences for all passengers.
▪ Lower capital and operating cost.