Regarding KCI’s future, City Hall ponders a new flight path

What are some of the short-term solutions for Kansas City International airport?

Kansas City Aviation Director Pat Klein talks about short-term improvements on tap for KCI while city debates airport's long-term future.
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Kansas City Aviation Director Pat Klein talks about short-term improvements on tap for KCI while city debates airport's long-term future.

Ever since Kansas City’s plans for this year’s airport election came to a screeching halt in May, many have been asking: Now what?

Mayor Sly James says the city needs a new flight path. And, he now contends, it’s up to the business community to finally take the lead.

“It has to come from someplace other than City Hall. I think that’s pretty obvious,” James said in an interview.

City Hall, he contended, has presented the factual case for a new single-terminal Kansas City International Airport over and over for five years. And yet “people didn’t believe it.”

“The private sector has to engage itself into this discussion if it’s important to them,” he said. “I will be happy to be an ally.”

James said that even as a citizens task force recommended new construction and the airlines finally came out in support, opposition voices were always the loudest.

“The people who are against it were right out there yelling about it,” he said. “Now all the people who are for it need to join in that conversation.”

Business and civic leaders who supported the single terminal from the sidelines had assumed an election this year. They acknowledge they now have to roll up their sleeves.

“It’s going to take all of us to move the needle,” Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce president Sheila Tracy said. Her organization adopted a resolution June 14 vowing to join a metrowide effort to rally public support for the single-terminal plan.

“I think this is important and needs to be done,” agreed Pat Dujakovich, president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO. He said he hasn’t been asked yet to join a civic campaign for a new terminal but is eager to join one.

He also said the city made a lot of mistakes in rolling out its airport plan and agreed it will be a heavy lift to overcome the contentious politics.

In the meantime, the decision to pull the plug on an election this year has raised another problem: The airport, one of the region’s most important business assets, can’t just continue to deteriorate while the community debate continues.

Potentially costly repairs and improvements still need attention. And those opposed to a single new terminal will have to develop solid backing for a complete renovation instead.

The Aviation Department already has a laundry list of immediate to-do items, from adding electrical outlets and better signs to addressing American Airlines’ extremely cramped gates.

The lead new-terminal foe, Citizens for Responsible Government, which compelled the City Council in 2014 to promise an airport vote in the first place, continues to send emails and rally its supporters to push for renovation.

Northland councilwoman Teresa Loar, who vehemently opposes new construction, said it’s time for city leaders and the airlines to face reality and pursue renovation.

She points to a renovation proposal by Kansas City architecture firm Crawford Architects as a starting point, although the airlines have rejected that as not meeting their needs.

“We’ve got to open our minds and sit back down at the table and see where we go from here,” Loar said. “People of this city have spoken, and they’re not going to allow their airport to be torn down.”

Business leadership

New polling still shows overwhelming voter opposition to replacing the three 43-year-old horseshoe terminals. Business and civic leaders are starting to mobilize, although very gingerly, to try to address the public opposition.

They say they want a clear direction for the airport in the next year to 18 months.

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, which would probably lead the charge, so far is tight-lipped on any specifics. Just getting everyone to the table to figure out what to do hasn’t yet occurred.

Chamber president Joe Reardon declined to be interviewed but issued an emailed statement, saying simply that the airport is a crucial business asset.

“KCI needs more flights and more direct flights for business travel, and we know the current facilities need substantial investment to maintain the status quo,” Reardon wrote. “The future of KCI, therefore, is of great concern, the subject of much conversation, and a priority within the business community.”

Reardon, a former Unified Government mayor, took over chamber leadership in late February from Jim Heeter, who retired. Heeter spoke up in 2014 about the need for a new terminal, but he and others were preoccupied in the past year with spearheading a $1 million campaign to preserve the city’s crucial earnings tax, which passed April 5.

“They were more focused, as they should have been, on the earnings tax,” James explained. “Don’t forget all these things were coming fairly hot and heavy … and then we turned toward the airport.”

Terry Dunn, retired chief executive of JE Dunn Construction Group and one of the city’s most influential civic leaders, agreed the airport’s future is one of the region’s most urgent challenges. He said he’s not yet ready to push for a new terminal but he’s seeking a “Kansas City solution” that works for the next 30 to 50 years.

“What the business community would like to do is develop a dialogue and have a good understanding of what’s at stake,” Dunn said. “Really strive to educate the community before we talk about an election.”

The business case for a new terminal was bolstered after Southwest and the other airlines told the City Council on April 26 that they would finance the nearly $1 billion new terminal, to be built where the mothballed Terminal A is now. They said it could be paid for with no tax increase, no general taxpayer dollars and no big ticket price increases.

The airlines said that after two years of study, they had concluded new construction was cheaper and would allow for roomier gates, the larger planes of the future, more efficient operations and short walking distances.

The new terminal, they said, was so much more practical and affordable that they would not help pay for an alternate renovation plan.

Despite that message, a Global Strategy Group survey of 800 likely voters in late April showed that only 39 percent would vote for airport revenue bonds for the new project and a whopping 84 percent viewed the existing KCI favorably.

Ronnie Burt, president of Visit KC, the convention and tourism agency, said the business community alone isn’t going to win over public opinion for a new airport, nor will business leaders want to step into the middle of a political fight.

“The way things get done is through collaboration,” he said. “The business community, city government, residents have to come together and look at why this is important.”

Corporations in the Northland, where the airport is located, are apparently ready to speak louder about trying to change public opinion.

In a May 31 letter to James, the Platte County Economic Development Council said it was “very disappointed” when the election was put on hold and pledged to help educate citizens about the project’s merits.

The board and staff of the Kansas City Area Development Council, a bistate economic development organization, are also on board.

“We have made it a priority to be engaged in the decision regarding the airport’s future,” Tim Cowden, the group’s president and CEO, said in an emailed statement.

Interim improvements

While the civic debate festers, some airport upgrades can’t wait.

“We’ve got some customer enhancements we’re looking at,” said Pat Klein, who became the new aviation director May 31, replacing Mark VanLoh, who retired.

While VanLoh was widely chastised for a poor public relations rollout of the airport plan in 2011, Klein generally has a track record for steady stewardship of controversial building projects, like the East Patrol police campus.

Klein said he will focus the next six to eight months on fixing things that can be fixed, like adding more cellphone electrical outlets, speeding up the Wi-Fi, brightening up the dingy lighting system and making signs more user-friendly. He is also exploring options for a more convenient cellphone waiting lot.

Most urgently, the airport will focus on widening American Airlines’ three very cramped gate areas, partly at the carrier’s expense.

But that project alone highlights one reason Southwest and American argued for the new terminal. They said the existing concrete terminals simply can’t be widened enough as they try to increase flights, with more and bigger jets.

Southwest said that’s why it’s adding flights in St. Louis, even though it’s much cheaper to fly out of Kansas City (about $7.50 per passenger vs. $15 per passenger in St. Louis).

“Southwest purposely does not connect passengers through MCI (KCI) like we do at St. Louis,” Southwest director of airport affairs Steve Sisneros told the City Council. “We purposely throttle down MCI because the connecting experience is so bad.”

In 2005, KCI and St. Louis each had about 60 Southwest flights. The airline now has 72 daily departures to 29 nonstop destinations from Kansas City, versus 103 daily departures to 43 nonstop destinations from St. Louis.

Southwest spokesman Dan Landson told The Star that Southwest will still add flights in Kansas City when it makes sense, such as new daily service to San Antonio this fall. He said Southwest is still committed to Kansas City, but no big expansions are planned, given the airport’s constraints.

“The customer experience is not optimal,” he said in an email. “If you’re in the airport on a busy day, it really is jam-packed with very little room to move.”

James said he is concerned about that inability to increase Southwest destinations and losing ground to other airports. He said people pushing renovation need to figure out how they would pay for it.

“The people of this city need to be convinced of what I believe is a basic reality, that this airport is about a lot more than ‘How fast can you get out of your car and get to your gate?’ ” James said. “That is not the measure of an airport.”

Political challenge

Talk persists that the City Council might try to maneuver to finance a single terminal without a public vote.

Speculation is the city could use some other entity like the Port Authority or the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

James and other council members flatly deny any such strategy. They point to the city law, pushed by Citizens for Responsible Government in 2014, that requires a public vote on airport revenue bonds and any major airport construction.

Council airport committee chairwoman Jolie Justus, who believes a new terminal can be as convenient and affordable as the existing airport, said lots of outsiders have thrown out possible alternative financing methods. But no one on the City Council, she said, is talking about avoiding a vote. Instead, she said, they’re talking about how to forge a community consensus.

So can the city accomplish that monumental public opinion change?

Veteran campaign consultant Steve Glorioso said it won’t be easy but there’s precedent. Voters approved rental car and tourism taxes for a new Sprint Center to replace Kemper Arena in 2004, even after polling showed only 40 percent support.

Glorioso suggested that Kansas City voters may eventually be persuaded. But it will take at least a year, he said, of outreach and education, plus a potentially expensive election campaign.

Since the public doesn’t seem to trust the city on this issue, Glorioso said, business leadership becomes even more important. And the airlines, particularly Southwest, remain popular with the public and also need to get more involved.

James says he wants a resolution in the next 18 months, but he alone can’t make it happen.

“Not everything can be done by me going out and campaigning,” he said. “It’s time for some other people to make their voices heard, and when those others’ voices are heard, we can all join together and see if we can get something done.”

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley