Kansas City officials forged ahead Thursday toward a new airport terminal, more determined than ever even while acknowledging the public probably isn’t on board yet with that goal.
The City Council’s Transportation Committee unanimously gave the green light to continued planning for a new, single-terminal Kansas City International Airport.
“We’re either going to be on the cutting edge or we’re going to be left behind,” Mayor Sly James said Thursday after the vote. “We can make this a purely, strictly, really cool Kansas City icon with all the stuff that we now know from every other airport that’s been built.”
He will need to convince people such as Kevin Koster, a Kansas City marketing executive who started a website at
just last week.
Koster said he’s had lots of feedback already from other people skeptical about the need for a new airport.
Koster said he’s not completely opposed to a new airport but doesn’t want to lose what makes KCI so special. He particularly likes how people can get to KCI and onto their plane in less than an hour, unlike other cities where it can take two hours to clear security.
“Kansas Citians should be able to figure out how we can keep what makes the airport great and solve these other problems,” he said.
City officials think they can do that and create a new airport as convenient as the old one.
The full council will vote on the advanced terminal planning study April 11. But a lot more needs to happen, including workshops and hearings to gather feedback from a skeptical public, before a new airport can be built, possibly in five to seven years.
“This is the end of the beginning of a long process,” City Manager Troy Schulte told the committee, adding there will be lots of opportunities for public input beginning this summer.
The study confirms what had already been presented last fall. The Aviation Department recommends replacing the existing KCI with a new terminal that could accommodate all passengers and airlines where the existing Terminal A is located.
The entire project, including terminal, new parking garage and other improvements, would cost an estimated $1.2 billion and would be paid for with passenger ticketing fees; airline, concession and tenant payments; and other aviation funds — but not local taxpayer dollars.
The financing method is still not identified, but Schulte acknowledged that selling municipal airport bonds would be the “cheapest form of financing.”
In Missouri, anytime a municipality issues debt, it must go to a public vote, so that means Kansas City residents may get a vote on this plan even if their tax dollars are not paying for it. Aviation officials acknowledge that many people love the airport just the way it is but say a new airport design can retain those passenger-friendly elements, such as close parking and gates, while adapting to all the security challenges of the modern aviation world.
Aviation Director Mark VanLoh said all the airline consolidations are hard to accommodate in Kansas City’s current three-terminal configuration. He said Kansas City has lost market share in recent years to Wichita, Columbia and Branson, not to mention larger airports, and has no ability to accommodate direct flights to Europe or other major business destinations.
He said KCI now averages 10 million passengers annually, down 2 million passengers a year from 2001. Getting new airlines to come to Kansas City or to expand their service from KCI has also been a challenge in recent years.
“We could lose our dominance in the Midwest,” he said.
The city already plans to close Terminal A, probably by the end of the year, because airline consolidations have largely emptied it.
VanLoh acknowledged that he couldn’t guarantee more business and traffic with a new airport but said he fears the continued loss of business if Kansas City doesn’t modernize.
Other Kansas City business leaders echoed that concern during a council discussion Thursday.
Bob Marcusse, president of the Kansas City Area Development Council, said KCI’s current configuration and lack of direct flights put the city at a competitive business disadvantage. He said the best thing some executives can say about the airport is that it is “quaint.”
Despite the public’s affection and emotional attachment to KCI, the airport is actually a “poor passenger experience,” with insufficient restrooms and minimal concessions in the gate areas, said Mark Perryman, a Landrum Brown consultant who worked on the study.
Perryman said the airport’s baggage security systems and mechanical systems are hopelessly outdated and cannot be updated in the current, 40-year-old airport. And he said new security requirements coming in the near future will be hard to accommodate with KCI’s current design.
While the existing KCI currently has 30 gates, it was built for 90. The new terminal would be built for 37 gates initially, but the design would be flexible and the facility could be bumped out over time to 60 gates.
Perryman said a new airport could be just as convenient as the current facility, with gates and parking still close, and it doesn’t have to be a huge, intimidating behemoth. It would have different levels for departing and arriving passengers to minimize the congestion that can sometimes occur now.
“You’re not Atlanta or Chicago,” he said, adding that KCI could look to Sacramento, Indianapolis or Austin as cities with newer airports that work well.
Kansas City resident Patrick Shami wasn’t persuaded. He told the committee that the department’s plan to spend $117,000 on a public relations firm smacked of a “thinly disguised campaign” to manipulate public opinion for a plan that is very unpopular.
But Transportation Committee chairman Russ Johnson defended the city’s push to keep modernizing the airport. He said more detailed planning will take the rest of the year or longer, including public workshops and detailed work on financing options. Architectural planning could take 18 months. Actual construction could take two years and employ 1,800 construction workers.
Johnson said residents also had an emotional attachment to Kemper Arena, but the city still made the right decision when it built the downtown Sprint Center.
“We have to do those things that are in the best financial, economic, environmental, business interests of the city,” the mayor said, “while trying to hold on to those emotional attachments that make things special.”