Government & Politics

The why of KCI: A broken plan that many travelers still love

Its planners promised that Kansas City International Airport would be the convenient skyway of the future, Kansas City’s air gateway to the world.

A half century later, KCI is neither of those and never was.

The “I” in KCI has always been a misnomer. Only one regularly scheduled international flight leaves Kansas City’s airport each day — Air Canada to Toronto — although Frontier has seasonal service to vacation spots south of the border.

And only one other major airport in the world, Tegel in Berlin, was designed to promise travelers such a short walk from their cars to an airplane seat. That airport is being replaced.

Still, despite falling short of its promise, KCI has many fans who say it remains one of the most convenient airports in the world. They do not want its three circular terminals replaced with a single terminal.

A citizens task force studying the issue is expected to make a recommendation next month, although the date for a final decision has not been set.

People ask why Kansas City has the airport it has. Here’s why: It was designed for an age of supersonic passenger service that would use speed and convenience to attract millions of new travelers.

Jumbo jets and supersonic transport planes were still on the drawing boards in the mid 1960s. The new KCI would be ready for them, “the first, from-the-ground-up supersonic airport in the world,” said the brochure promoting the $150 million revenue bond issue that was the foundation for a $250 million project.

Everything about the design of KCI — from its long runways to the “drive to your gate” convenience of three and perhaps even four terminals — was geared for an era when the new jets would whisk passengers to points across the globe, sometimes faster than the speed of sound.

All of it was predicated on Kansas City being the headquarters of Trans World Airlines, whose needs dictated much of the planning.

“It was all about convenience,” according to Les Wood, a retired TWA vice president who was in charge of the airline’s operations here shortly after KCI opened in late 1972. “We wanted to make it simple and easy for the customer.”

Between the airline’s network of domestic and international flights and the city’s central location, Kansas City was, it was said, poised to “become one of a handful of great international airline distribution centers.”

Problem was, the age of supersonic air travel never materialized beyond the novelty of the Concorde during its decades of ferrying high rollers across the Atlantic. The Concorde landed at KCI once, to the best of anyone’s knowledge.

The terminals’ circular design was meant to fit the vision of an airline that no longer exists because of unseen competitive pressures in an industry that looks nothing like it did four decades ago.

“Who knew deregulation was going to hit in ’78 and change the entire industry?” said Mark VanLoh, Kansas City’s aviation director.

VanLoh is among those who say Kansas City’s futuristic airport is now a quirky anachronism and has been from the day it opened.

Even as the first scheduled flights were taking off from KCI that Veterans Day morning, a skyjacking drama was playing out in the eastern U.S. — one so bold that it led the Federal Aviation Administration to impose the passenger screening system that made the gate arrival concept TWA insisted upon problematic from the start.

Security is now one of the key drivers behind the effort to build a single, $1.2 billion terminal building to replace the existing three.

And ironically enough, while designed with jumbo jets in mind, some gates are inaccessible to big planes and the baggage facilities are easily overwhelmed at the gates where they can park, one study found as early as 1976.

Yet for all its shortcomings, many locals cherish Kansas City’s airport for being unlike newer and much busier ones with their centralized security screening areas and long walks inside huge terminal buildings whose interiors could be mistaken for shopping malls.

Meanwhile at KCI, dropping off or picking up passengers at the curb makes for a quick in and out.

“We like the convenience and the way it’s laid out,” said Dan Coffey, leader of Friends of KCI, one of two groups that formed to help slow the momentum of a movement to do away with the current setup.

Yet Coffey acknowledges that like countless other Kansas Citians, he draws a blank when asked why more airports aren’t like KCI.

“I have no idea,” he said.

Design debated

City leaders in the mid 1960s felt they had no choice but to build a new airport. The feds had deemed the city’s main downtown airport, then called Municipal, with its short runways and steep approach, unfit for the jet age.

Other sites were considered, but in the end the city decided to expand Kansas City’s backup airport in Platte County, Mid-Continent International. TWA had its overhaul base there. And although it was far from the center of town, MCI was set on 5,000 acres and there was plenty of room to grow.

The local engineering firm Burns McDonnell was hired to plan, design and supervise construction of the overall project, while architects Kivett Myers had the job of designing the terminals.

For 18 months, the designers resisted TWA’s insistence on a new approach to delivering customers from the parking lot to their seats on the aircraft. Typically, airports would have a central terminal with finger-like additions attached, along which airliners would park.

Passengers might walk the length of a football field to get to their gate.

TWA wanted to shorten the distance to 75 feet between the curb and the gates and eventually won the argument.

“It is the world’s shortest walk to fly,” architect Clarence Kivett told The Star when it was finished. “There’s nothing like it in the world.”

The city and the eight airlines that initially served KCI put on a three-day open house near the end of October 1972.

People paid TWA $10 to take sightseeing flights over the area in one of the then-new 747 jumbo jets, but not everyone had to pay.

“Got a freebie,” former mayor Charlie Wheeler recalled last week.

Also at the dedication ceremony were Missouri Gov. Warren Hearnes and Sen. Bob Dole from Kansas. But the headliner was Vice President Spiro Agnew, who offered words of praise that still resonate with fans of the current terminal setup.

Agnew gushed about its focus on customer comfort, specifically the short walk to that silver bird that would ferry you in luxury to cities far away.

“Vision, the gift to see the future as a place of hope and progress and expansion,” Agnew said. “That, ladies and gentlemen, is the secret ingredient that has made this airport possible.”

Only problem is, as some of the airport’s architects would later admit, they got the vision wrong.

“We had lousy crystal balls,” Kivett said some years later. “We couldn’t read the future.”

Security concerns

What the airport’s designer couldn’t have known was the huge role that security concerns would later figure in airport operations.

Back when KCI was designed, airports had no metal detectors. There were no guards searching people’s bags. You didn’t need a boarding pass. You could buy your ticket on the plane.

It’s not that skyjackings were unheard of in the early jet age; they would average five a year worldwide before 1967. But suddenly that number spiked by the late 1960s. Between armed men demanding to be flown from the United States to Cuba and extremists overseas seizing airliners for political reasons, the average jumped to more than 40 a year by the time KCI opened.

On the same day regular flight service began on Nov. 11, 1972, three hijackers made front page news for threatening to crash a plane into the nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

That next month, the FAA ordered new security screening checkpoints that made the gate arrival concept less convenient and more expensive for the airlines than envisioned.

Instead of one centralized security check at a single large terminal, KCI’s layout requires multiple security checkpoints.

Combine that with the walled-off holding areas and centralized ticket counters and the terminals no longer operate the way they were designed to work. The world’s shortest walk to fly is not as short as it used to be.

“People say it’s walk (directly) to your gate, but it’s not that way anymore,” said VanLoh.

Today’s security precautions also mean that passengers have time to kill before their flights. Today’s newer airports tend to have lots of places for travelers to buy a meal or shop after they have cleared security.

Yet when KCI was designed, little consideration was given to providing space for anything but minimal commercial activity.

Who needed restaurants at the airport when the airlines in those days provided full meals on the plane?

And the notion that travelers might want to buy stuff at the airport: Who had time for that while dashing to catch a flight? The idea was to spend as little time at the airport as possible.

Still, the fact that the insides of today’s new airports resemble shopping malls is a sore point with some.

Among them is German architect Meinhard von Gerkan, who with a partner designed the airport in West Berlin that most closely resembles Kansas City’s airport.

Unlike KCI, Tegel’s main terminal is in the shape of a hexagon and more efficient when it comes to making flight connections.

Yet both airports were based on the same “drive to your gate” concept. But now that the passenger counts at Tegel have far exceeded its capacity, its $6 billion replacement is being readied across town.

No more short walks to the gate, von Gerkan bemoaned last month in a Bloomberg News article.

“That’s a contradiction to the idea of having passengers take the longest possible route to channel them past the perfume bottles and T-shirts,” he said.

A cynical notion, to be sure, but one that’s come up at recent public meetings on whether to rethink KCI’s terminal setup.

A new airport would have lots more places to eat and buy things. The demand is there for it, VanLoh said. Even with the limited amount of retail KCI has, those shops and restaurants took in $29 million last year.

“Give the people what they want,” he said.

But fans of the current setup say what they want is a focus on convenience more than raising airport revenues. The most recent customer satisfaction ratings from J.D. Power and Associates had KCI ranked No. 1 among medium-size airports.

“Everybody tells me it’s the most convenient airport in the country,” Wheeler said.

Meeting on terminal design

Consultants are expected to discuss KCI’s terminal configuration and compare that to other airport designs at the next KCI Terminal Advisory Group meeting at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday. After this meeting at City Hall, the task force plans to move to the Stilwell Room at Union Station to deliberate from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday on their recommendations.

The task force also will hold two more public town hall meetings before issuing its recommendations in April. Those town hall meetings are both scheduled from 6 to 7:30 p.m.:

• Monday at Southeast Community Center, 4201 E. 63rd St., Kansas City.

• March 20 at Johnson County Community College’s Polsky Theater, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park.