For a decade or more, Kansas City International Airport has had one daily flight to Toronto, Canada, plus limited service to Mexico in the tourist season.
Hardly a lot of choice for nonstop, non-domestic destinations.
And for years, industry watchers have assumed that was all we could get. Only hub airports — which Kansas City’s is not — could reasonably offer nonstop service to Europe.
But times are changing, and Kansas City aviation officials are making a concerted effort to pursue trans-Atlantic options.
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You might say they’re making a move to boost the “international” in KCI. And that’s with or without a new airport terminal.
“The changing industry dynamic has allowed us to step up on some of that,” said Justin Meyer, deputy aviation director for marketing and air service development. “It has opened up the ballgame to allow us to play.”
The changing dynamic is that Boeing has rolled out a new aircraft, the 787 Dreamliner, that carries 200 to 335 passengers, far fewer than the traditional trans-Atlantic airplane. Its lower operating costs make cross-ocean flights that much more economically feasible.
Kansas City already has about 300 people who travel daily to Europe during peak season, as aviation director Mark VanLoh recently noted in a speech to an area chamber of commerce gathering.
“That’s enough to fill a Boeing 787,” he told the group. “It can go nonstop to London. So we say, why not Kansas City to London?”
Until recently, industry analysts would have scoffed at such a notion. But in March, the Austin, Texas, airport, a non-hub airport similar in passenger numbers to KCI, launched a daily British Airways flight to London. Aviation observers nationwide sat up and took notice.
“I do believe that international airlines are looking at second-tier airports as possibilities,” said William Swelbar, research engineer with the MIT International Center for Air Transportation. “I would imagine Kansas City, Columbus (Ohio), Austin and those types of markets are attractive, as the larger cities are relatively full.”
Denver-based aviation consultant Mike Boyd made the same observation at his 19th annual International Aviation Forecast Summit in Las Vegas last month. Boyd predicted that in the next three to eight years, a new generation of airliners such as the 787 will allow carriers to “invade” major non-hub airports. He specifically cited KCI, along with Cincinnati, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Memphis, Tenn.
The hunt for more international flights comes as Kansas City aviation officials are planning the next phase of airport improvements. Aviation staff and airlines are in talks about the best way to modernize the airport — whether through a new terminal or existing terminal upgrades.
The planning has sparked intense public debate, with many local residents and fliers saying they don’t want the airport dramatically changed. Aviation officials emphasize that increased international service is doable and desirable whether or not the airport configuration changes.
Would it be easier with a new, custom-designed area for international planes and passengers? Yes, because the current horse-shoe configuration limits maneuverability of some large planes and poses challenges for people going through customs.
But just as KCI with its current configuration has adapted to airline and aircraft changes over the past 40 years, it would continue to do so even with new international carriers, said David Long, deputy aviation director for properties and commercial development.
“We could handle it,” Meyer agreed.
Aviation officials say talks with the airlines on possible airport improvements are going well, and they expect to give an update to the City Council in October. Any firm plan for a new or improved airport is likely at least a year away.
But not everyone is convinced that midsize airports are ripe for international service and that KCI can follow the Austin example.
“Austin, it’s a high-growth city, one of the fastest growing cities in America,” said Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, who has studied midsize airports that in the past were overly optimistic in their growth projections. He points out that Austin has a built-in demand for international travel because it has a booming tech sector and a huge university.
“Austin is not your normal comparison by any means,” he said.
But other midsize airports are also aggressively courting the Dreamliner, arguing their cities should be at the top of the list.
According to The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, Columbus officials recently met with British Airways officials in London and returned home optimistic about their chances for a direct flight to London.
The newspaper said other cities in the mix were Indianapolis, St. Louis, Cleveland and Nashville, Tenn., but did not mention Kansas City.
Nonetheless, Meyer sees opportunity and points out that in the latter part of 2013, Kansas City had more travelers to Europe than either Columbus or Austin.
He notes that Kansas City is the 30th largest metropolitan area in the country in population but currently ranks 62nd in international flight frequency. KCI ranks behind Milwaukee, Harrisburg, Pa., and Nashville, among other midsize cities.
“So it’s not hard for me to look at the numbers and say, we’re kind of underserved,” he said.
Still, Meyer concedes this is likely to be a long courtship and may not yield results for five to eight years. And it might not end up in a daily flight to London. Other possibilities could be Paris, Munich or Frankfurt, Germany.
Even recruiting domestic carriers takes years. Meyer worked for KCI from 2006 to 2012, then spent two years with the Tampa airport before returning to KCI four months ago. He recalls first meeting with Spirit Airlines back in 2006 to talk about KCI. That relationship finally bore fruit with Spirit launching flights from KCI on Aug. 7.
Meyer is heading to Chicago in late September for the 20th World Route Development Forum, where he will have about a dozen face-to-face meetings with representatives of both domestic and international carriers to talk about what’s new in Kansas City, including business developments and the burgeoning soccer mania.
Attractive domestic nonstop destinations that Meyer thinks are naturals for KCI would be Miami; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Austin and San Antonio.
“We should have Miami as a gateway to Latin America,” he said.
New routes tend to stimulate even more growth. Meyer notes that United Airlines didn’t fly directly from KCI to San Francisco five years ago, but now it does, and that has become a jumping off point to Asia. It started with one 64-seat regional jet and now offers three flights per day.
“Nonstop service creates that demand,” he said.
Representatives of several global businesses headquartered in Kansas City, such as Black and Veatch and Cerner, said they would welcome international service from KCI if it can be done cost effectively and with good connecting times.
“Cerner’s most frequent international destination is London, where we have 400 associates, so a direct flight from KCI would be naturally beneficial,” said Shawn Geraghty, Cerner’s director of corporate travel.
Jim Heeter, president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, said many chamber members would like to see better international connections from KCI.
“I hear that repeatedly from our members,” he said. “It’s not just the biggest companies. That includes a number of smaller and medium-sized companies that do business internationally.”
In a global economy, more nonstop flights are essential for Kansas City to compete. “It’s good for economic growth and job creation,” Heeter said. “It’s really a matter of connections.”
To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to email@example.com.