Like it or not, change is in the air at KCI

As more than 300,000 travelers pass through Kansas City International Airport this holiday week, they might take a moment to appreciate the airport’s unique three-terminal design.

Because its days are numbered.

Until now, any plans for a new airport have seemed stalled, grounded, nowhere near takeoff.

But like it or not — and many Kansas Citians love their hometown airport just the way it is — support for a new, one-terminal design is gaining momentum.

In fact, if proponents have their way, construction on a replacement terminal could begin in five years and be finished in eight. The city has to pick up the pace on this, aviation officials say.

“The situation with the three terminals is getting worse,” city aviation director Mark VanLoh said in an interview. “It’s a mess.”

That would be news to Chris DeWeese, who lives in Trimble, near Smithville, and frequently flies out of KCI for his job fixing medical equipment.

“It’s very quick and efficient, and the crowds are small,” DeWeese said, contrasting that with the airports for Atlanta and Minneapolis “where you stand in line with 5,000 people.”

Travelers such as DeWeese worry that a one-terminal airport would have worse bottlenecks at security checkpoints, longer treks to gates and hassles retrieving their luggage. They fear they won’t be able to drop off people as close to their gates or meet arriving relatives as easily as now.

But there are so many factors the public doesn’t realize, VanLoh says.

Airline mergers have resulted in one crowded terminal at KCI and two that are half-empty. Multiple security checkpoints require nearly 500 screeners, hundreds more than other airports need. Environmental contamination and antiquated heating and cooling systems can’t be fixed without new construction.

When people ask whether a new terminal is the best way, VanLoh responds, “It’s the only way. We’ve tried. We’ve remodeled.”

The airport will be 40 years old next year and would be close to 50 by the time supporters hope the new terminal opens.

VanLoh says Kansas City can learn from the mistakes of new terminals in other cities. Security checkpoints will be configured to avoid long lines, he says, and moving walkways will carry people quickly to their gates. And there will be plenty of close-in parking, he says.

The City Council this month unanimously approved a $4.4 million contract to figure out, in general terms, what the new terminal would look like and how to pay for it. The study, funded primarily by federal aviation money, will take about 18 months.

Councilman Ed Ford, who voted against the 2008 airport master plan for a single-terminal layout, now supports moving forward.

Ford said he was against the plan three years ago because his constituents told him in church, at the grocery store and wherever he went that they hated the one-terminal idea.

“I had more people come up to me unsolicited about this issue than any other issue I had dealt with,” he said. “It was upsetting a lot of people. It seemed stupid to proceed if you weren’t going to pull the trigger in the near future.”

But he says it’s now time to fire away. He’s traveled enough to realize KCI’s shortcomings.

“It’s going to happen regardless of whether our citizens want it to happen,” he said, adding that the city is “going to have to work overtime to explain the logic behind it.”

VanLoh cites one common misconception the city must overcome: People think Kansas City will have to raise taxes to pay for a new terminal. It will not.

The money for the new facility — costing $1 billion to $2 billion — would come from federal aviation dollars, the airlines themselves, and taxes and fees paid by airline customers. And it’s not as if Kansas City passengers haven’t helped pay for other airports.

When people tell VanLoh, “We don’t want to pay for this,” he responds, “You already are. You paid for the Denver airport. You paid for the new Sacramento airport. Every time you fly, that ticket tax you pay to the federal government goes into a big pot of money.”

The point VanLoh wants to make to Kansas City residents: “It’s our turn. We send so much money to Washington. It’s Kansas City’s turn to put people to work.”

Terminal shortcomings

It’s not as if KCI hasn’t had plenty of improvements since 2000.

Between 2001 and 2004, the three terminals got a $258 million makeover, complete with expanded passenger holding and baggage screening areas, new concessions, improved flight information equipment, bigger windows and the distinctive blue terrazzo flooring.

New long-term parking areas opened in 2004 at a cost of $62 million. And a $90 million consolidated rental car facility was finished in 2007.

But VanLoh says it’s becoming increasingly difficult to adapt to aviation industry changes with the current configuration. In the past two years, the airport has dropped from 10 major carriers to six. Terminal B has almost two-thirds of departing passengers and is so crowded that the airport is losing Southwest flights to other cities because it can’t fit any more into that space.

Alaska Airlines, which is coming in March, also has to go into Terminal B because Delta will handle its baggage.

Meanwhile, Terminals A and C sometimes resemble ghost towns.

There’s no doubt KCI has lost ground since its passenger numbers peaked at nearly 12 million in 2000. Annual totals have fluctuated from 9 million to 11 million since.

KCI today handles about 195 daily departures, down from 283 in 2000. It provides nonstop flights to 48 destinations, compared with 70 in 2007.

Councilman Russ Johnson, who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says the terminal design prevents the airport from offering customers a full range of non-stop and international options, whether those customers realize it or not.

“It’s an obstacle to airlines providing more flight choices to Kansas Citians,” he said. “That is the No. 1 concern.”

Mayor Sly James also is concerned about the drop in direct flights, particularly for business travel. “If it wasn’t for Southwest, we’d really be in trouble,” he said.

James also thinks the federal government wants KCI to go to one terminal, particularly because of security concerns. A single terminal also works better for the airlines.

VanLoh has tried to adapt the airport to recent changes. This year, he wanted to move United Airlines to Terminal C and close Terminal A to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in utilities and staffing costs. But United resisted, so instead, Continental is moving from C to A, meaning C will just have American and Frontier.

“We call it the three-ring circus for a reason,” VanLoh told the City Council at a recent briefing, citing all the mergers, changes and shuttered areas. At one point recently, the airport opened a shop across from an airline check-in area, only to see the airline relocate a month later, leaving the shop without customers. The same thing has happened with airport restaurants.

VanLoh insists a new airport can be convenient for passengers but still capitalize on plenty of vacant land, good geographic location, two 10,000-foot runways and generally decent weather.

“This is the perfect place to have it,” he says. “If Chicago can do it, why can’t we?”

KCI of the future

Supporters tick off the advantages they say a new terminal would bring:

•  Closer to most local travelers. The new terminal would be built south of the existing airport on land the city owns, with a new interchange off Missouri 152 and new roads to the terminal, paid for with state and Aviation Department money. Because 50 percent of KCI’s passengers live in Kansas, and many Missouri passengers are from south of the Missouri River, that’s four miles closer each way for vehicles.

•  Smaller footprint. The airport itself could drop from about 1.2 million square feet to about 700,000 square feet, with big savings on utilities, while still accommodating 15 million passengers or more per year. New designs allow for common-use gates, so airlines can switch in and out at a moment’s notice. Lobby areas probably would be smaller and mostly automated, as is already happening in Europe, because many passengers check in online. Moving walkways would get people from lobby to gate, and new baggage-handling systems would get suitcases to carousels faster.

The new terminal also could have separate levels for departing and arriving passengers, something KCI doesn’t currently have but most airports do.

“We won’t have three separate buildings to worry about,” VanLoh said. “We’ll have one generic facility where we can move things around inside.”

•  Streamlined security. The airport of the future probably will have different screening lines for different passenger types: the frequent traveler; the occasional traveler and families; and the unknown traveler, such as one with a one-way ticket paid for in cash. VanLoh says the current airport’s narrow concourses would make such a layout difficult.

•  No more buses. The terminal would have an 18,500-space centralized parking garage serving all customers, including rental car customers, and getting rid of the red and blue buses. Aviation officials also envision a bag drop-off area in the parking garage.

•  Environmental benefits. A man-made lake at KCI holds runoff from de-icer fluid that is used on airplane wings in wintry weather. But VanLoh concedes the airport collects only 30 percent of that chemical contamination, and it’s becoming a more critical issue with the Environmental Protection Agency. A new airport would capture all chemical runoff and drain it to a processing plant. The new airport also could have wind- and solar-powered elements.

Once the terminal planning study is done, VanLoh says, it could take up to two years to select an architect and another two years to begin construction. The project likely would employ 3,000 people in all types of construction trades.

The good news is all that construction could occur on new ground while the existing airport keeps on humming.

And when the new terminal opens, KCI’s existing terminals could be used by trucking or freight companies or other businesses needing ample parking and airport access. VanLoh cites the example of VML Advertising, which has offices in the old downtown airport terminal.

“I’m not all about tearing it down right away,” he said.

Tough sell

The new terminal could still be a hard sell for travelers who consistently give KCI high marks. In 2007 and again in 2010, J.D. Power and Associates ranked KCI highest among medium-sized airports in its North America Airport Satisfaction surveys.

In the 2010 survey, KCI performed particularly well in three of six factors: airport accessibility, check-in/baggage check and security checks. It also got high ratings for its terminals and baggage claim access. It ranked below average only in food and retail.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Terminal B was bustling while terminals A and C were much quieter. But even in B, passengers compared KCI favorably with other airports.

“I love this airport,” said Greg Ryan of Pasadena, Calif., who was waiting at KCI for a relative flying in from Pasadena. “I think it’s easy to get in and out of.”

Ryan said it’s particularly convenient compared with Los Angeles International Airport, where the lines seem so long and the gates far apart.

When told that the federal government is helping pay for a study to convert to a one-terminal airport, Ryan responded, “Tell the feds no.”

Shannon Mariner was waiting with her 11-month-old son, Jaden, to catch a Southwest flight to see relatives in Utah, going through Denver.

She also said she likes KCI. “It doesn’t seem as overwhelming as somewhere else, like Denver,” she said. “It seems so much smaller.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, whose district includes KCI, is also a fan of the current configuration. He said he’s concerned that any change could compromise passenger satisfaction.

“Kansas City is one of the most convenient airports in the nation,” Graves said. He also appreciates the multiple gates and security checkpoints.

“It may not be that efficient to some, but it’s safer as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “You have more security and more checking, where you don’t fatigue those security screeners.”

Graves has introduced legislation in Congress that would require all airports to consider customer convenience in their master plans, along with security, land use and other factors.

The measure, in an FAA reauthorization bill that awaits final passage, would not prevent Kansas City from building a new airport. But it would mean airport planners would have to take customer satisfaction into account.

While KCI gets high marks from some, it doesn’t always get such favorable reaction from out-of-town businessmen or tourists.

Aviation officials recently shared ridiculing tweets and email with the City Council, with choice barbs such as “worst layout e-v-e-r,” “the most horribly designed/bizarre airport I’ve ever been in” and “horrible location, outdated, and just generally very very bad.”

Anita English, of Benton, Ky., accompanied her husband on a business trip from the Nashville, Tenn., airport to Kansas City in late October. In an email to aviation officials, she wrote that she was “shocked” at KCI’s layout.

“It looks like after 9/11 the whole area where passengers must wait for their flight was a complete afterthought,” she wrote. “The kiosks to purchase beverages or food were like some street vendors you would find on the streets of New York City.”

After waiting 15 minutes to use the two-stall women’s restroom, she finally went into the corridor to find a larger restroom and then had to go through security again to get back to her gate.

In a subsequent phone interview, English said she found Kansas City’s close-in baggage claim area “phenomenal” but was unimpressed with the rest of the airport. As she told the aviation department, “I hope I don’t ever have to fly to, from or through KC ever again. Not a great experience.”

Falling behind

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, said that when he was mayor in the 1990s he knew how much people wanted to keep the airport as it was.

“The problem is that other cities are not keeping theirs,” Cleaver said. “So we have clearly fallen behind with our airport. Look at Denver, Charlotte (N.C.), Minneapolis. They’re all moving far ahead of us.”

Airports have become vibrant economic activity centers and “glamorous ports of entry into a community,” he said. By that standard, Kansas City’s airport is a friendly but unsophisticated country bumpkin.

Kansas City can’t afford not to move forward, Cleaver warned, or “we’re going to be left in the dust by every major city around us.”

When the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce visited Charlotte this fall, that city’s airport director was asked for his impression of KCI.

“Take a picture of it if you like it so much,” Jerry Orr told the Kansas City gathering. “And then get rid of it.”

Orr admitted in a recent interview that he’s never been to KCI. But he’s familiar with its national reputation as the place “where hubs go to die.”

Charlotte is about the same size as Kansas City, but its airport serves nearly 40 million passengers annually. It has a huge retail presence, generating enough revenue to help keep fares low. A hub for U.S. Airways, the airport has 17 daily flights to New York, plus daily flights to London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Frankfurt, Germany.

Orr said the airport’s non-stop and international flights are among the top reasons corporations such as Goodrich and Bank of America located in Charlotte.

Orr says Kansas City isn’t a likely candidate for a big hub, but with a new terminal it “absolutely can get more direct flights and international service.”

VanLoh notes KCI currently averages 300 people per day who travel to Europe. But because they come to all three terminals and aren’t concentrated in one area, it’s difficult to schedule direct international flights. He envisions a time when planes could go direct to London or Frankfurt.

Still, council members don’t want the aviation department to focus so much on grand plans that they neglect what locals already appreciate about KCI.

The key question, Councilman John Sharp told VanLoh, is, “For city residents, how will this be as good or better than what I think is a very convenient airport?”

VanLoh agreed that’s the challenge for planners and architects.

“We basically say, ‘We’ve got a pretty good thing here in Kansas City,’ ” VanLoh told Sharp. “ ‘Don’t screw it up.’ ”