Government & Politics

Business leaders starting to make case for single-terminal KCI

Leaders of some of Kansas City’s most influential business organizations said Monday that they will make the case to their members and employees that a single-terminal airport is best for the region’s business and economic development.

The executive directors and key board members of three organizations — the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas City Civic Council and the Kansas City Area Development Council — told The Star’s Editorial Board on Monday that they are launching an educational campaign about the importance of a new terminal for Kansas City’s economic growth.

All three organizations have endorsed the single-terminal concept for Kansas City International Airport. They plan multiple presentations and conversations with their member businesses and employees of those businesses.

“A single terminal is really the best opportunity for better air service,” chamber president Joe Reardon told the Editorial Board, adding that he doesn’t think that the airport debate over the past few years has focused enough on the airport’s potential to be an economic engine for the region.

“We don’t think a business case conversation really has been part of the conversation in Kansas City, almost since the inception of talking about what the future of KCI might hold,” he said.

This business initiative, dubbed A Better KCI, should start in the next week to 10 days and will take place throughout the summer. It comes as the City Council is trying to chart a path for airport improvements that could lead to a public vote in November.

The debate over the future of KCI goes back at least five years and has focused mostly on affordability and passenger convenience.

Various citizen advisory groups and the previous City Council have supported replacing Kansas City’s current horseshoe-terminal configuration with a single terminal where Terminal A stands. In April 2016, the airlines, led by Southwest Airlines, also came out in favor of a single-terminal airport plan, saying it would be cheaper, safer and more efficient and effective than terminal renovations. They insisted KCI would still be convenient and not a huge monolith like airports in Atlanta and Chicago, and urged the City Council to call for a public vote in August in support of that single-terminal plan.

But Mayor Sly James pulled the plug last May on a 2016 election because polling showed Kansas City voters, by a huge margin, preferred the existing airport configuration and did not support a plan for a single terminal.

Reardon said the business community has spent the past year looking at airport improvements from a business standpoint and has concluded that a new single terminal is preferable for a host of reasons. Karen Daniel, chamber board chairwoman; Jewel Scott of the Civic Council and Scott Smith, Civic Council board chairman; and Tim Cowden of the Area Development Council and John F. Murphy, past co-chairman of the development council’s board, concurred.

Daniel said a trip last fall to Dallas/Fort Worth showed Kansas City business executives how an effective and modern airport can be a huge economic engine for a community.

The leaders also pointed out that KCI now has fewer Southwest flights than St. Louis, even though St. Louis is more expensive to fly out of, because KCI’s configuration is inferior for connecting passengers.

Justin Meyer, deputy aviation director for air service development at KCI, confirmed that this summer, Kansas City will have 79 daily Southwest departures, while St. Louis will have 110.

That translates into less business growth opportunity for the Kansas City region, Reardon and others said.

The business leaders pointed out that a new terminal would not be funded by general taxpayer dollars, although many people still don’t realize that.

People who don’t use the airport won’t face any cost. Instead, a new terminal would be built with airport revenue bonds, paid back with parking fees, concessions, airline rents and ticketing fees, with a majority of those fees paid by non-Kansas City residents. While ticket prices would go up by a few dollars, they would not go up significantly, the airlines have said.

The Kansas City Aviation Department is making this same case to many Kansas City neighborhood groups in listening sessions this spring and summer.

Still, it’s uncertain whether the business push or listening sessions will convince either the City Council or Kansas City voters. The council must approve any ballot language by late August to prepare for the November election. Some council members and many people say they remain unconvinced or undecided about the best path forward for the airport.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley