Government & Politics

Southwest Airlines urges business community to get on board for KCI single terminal

Southwest executive addresses need for new airport terminal

Southwest executive Jason Van Eaton spoke to a Kansas City business community luncheon about the need for a new single-terminal passenger facility at Kansas City International Airport.
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Southwest executive Jason Van Eaton spoke to a Kansas City business community luncheon about the need for a new single-terminal passenger facility at Kansas City International Airport.

Southwest Airlines is ramping up its push for a new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport, and fervently urging the business community to help that project get liftoff before it’s too late.

A top Southwest Airlines executive told several hundred business and construction industry advocates this week that it’s time for the business community to step up and help persuade the public to support a new single-terminal construction project at KCI.

The message was that the new terminal is urgently needed now if Kansas City is going to remain a major league business city.

“If Kansas City truly wants a new airport to be the front door this city can be proud of for decades to come, it’s up to you,” Jason Van Eaton, Southwest’s vice president of governmental affairs, told about 450 people at a Kansas City luncheon Tuesday sponsored by the National Institute for Construction Excellence.

“Improving airports takes years. The longer it takes, the more painful it is,” he said. “We don’t want to lose the momentum.”

Van Eaton told the crowd that Southwest, KCI’s largest carrier, and the other airlines unanimously favor a new terminal and don’t support a major renovation of the existing 44-year-old terminals.

“We believe that a major renovation is not money well spent as the airport facility is aging, out of date, it’s poorly designed for today’s air travel needs, and will continue to require too much maintenance,” he said, adding that the airlines “are in favor of doing something right now,” before interest rates and labor and commodity costs make it less affordable.

Southwest made that case emphatically to the City Council in April, after the aviation department and airlines serving KCI spent two years studying a host of renovation and new construction options. Steve Sisneros, Southwest’s director of airport affairs, urged the council to put a new terminal project of about $970 million to a public vote in August. The council previously had promised to seek voter approval for any big airport changes.

But just a week later, in May, Mayor Sly James put the great airport debate on “pause,” saying polling showed less than 40 percent of frequent Kansas City voters supported a new terminal. As airport options have been discussed for the past five years, many in the local traveling public have made clear that they love KCI’s convenience — especially the short car-to-gate distances — and they didn’t want major changes to that configuration.

Indeed, prior to the two-year airline study, Southwest Airlines executives had been decidedly lukewarm on the new terminal idea and had thought renovations would be cheaper and better. Sisneros told the council in April that they have changed their minds, and their study finally convinced them new construction was in fact less expensive, more efficient, and can also be convenient for customers.

“We slowly began to realize our original assumptions were wrong,” Sisneros said.

On Tuesday, Van Eaton reiterated that new stance and said the public has to be educated about the new single terminal’s advantages. He reminded the crowd that airport financing is unlike most construction projects and does not involve general taxpayer dollars. Instead it is funded by airline lease payments, passengers, parking and concession fees.

KCI’s current airline costs are just under $7 per passenger, very low among medium-sized airports. Van Eaton said those costs would go to about $11 per passenger if construction were finished in 2022, still affordable and lower than St. Louis and other peer airports.

He said the time is ripe to replace a shuttered Terminal A, allowing for shorter and less expensive construction while the existing terminals B and C remain functional.

“Southwest is actively involved in these projects all over the country … and the opportunity Kansas City has is very rare,” he said. “And we don’t want to miss that opportunity to save millions of dollars and months of construction time because we have a clean site to work from.”

But it’s clear that education campaign may be a tough sell. City Manager Troy Schulte said Thursday that more recent polling from September shows public sentiment about a new single-terminal airport hasn’t budged, with less than 40 percent of likely voters agreeing it is needed.

“It’s going to be a slog,” Schulte said.

James has said that talk of major airport upgrades should be put on hold while the city focuses on a big priority for voters — an $800 million general obligation bond election next April to pay for basic infrastructure improvements like streets, sidewalks and city buildings.

City Councilwoman Teresa Loar, who lives in the 2nd council district that includes the airport, was not at the luncheon, but she said any talk of a massive airport overhaul is a nonstarter with her constituents.

“This community is in no mood to talk about a new airport,” she said. “So I think until we get the community on board there’s nothing else to do. We’ve got to do that first. I think there’s a huge trust factor here that’s missing. Until we overcome that, we’re not going anywhere.”

Greg Lever, executive director of the construction excellence institute, said he invited Van Eaton to be his luncheon’s keynote speaker because the airport is “the topic of the day.”

“We need to move the discussion forward and not let it lay idle,” he said. Lever said people in the audience realize the airport project’s job potential and want to move forward.

His organization showed a video at the luncheon featuring metro area mayors, business and chamber leaders, all saying the community needs to find an airport solution and turn it into the economic growth engine it can be.

But Loar said all of that is irrelevant to Kansas City voters, who are still in the drivers’ seat on any airport changes.

Joe Reardon, president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, was at the luncheon. He also returned last month from a chamber-organized trip to Dallas, where Kansas City civic leaders learned how important both Dallas airports have been to that city’s growth. He said Southwest officials, based in Dallas, made it clear they love being Kansas City’s dominant carrier and want to work with the community to make the airport as successful as it can be.

Reardon said any regional conclusion about the airport will need a lot more community discussion, most likely after Kansas City’s April bond election.

“We need to be thoughtful about what’s going to happen there … understanding what those investments do to our potential, to attract more jobs, to help our economy and to ensure we have air access,” he said. “I’m hopeful that conversation is one that can be had throughout Kansas City.”

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley