It is a near certainty that either this year or next, voters in Kansas City will be asked to make what is likely to be a $1 billion decision regarding the fate of the aging terminals at Kansas City International Airport.
To many, the three horseshoe-shaped buildings, now 43 years old, are considered beloved, if not for their institutional looks — one Twitter user last week compared them to North Korean prisons — then for the general ease with which one can park, check in and board a flight.
“Inside is great, honestly,” said Jeff Fisher, 44, of Overland Park, who travels out of KCI each week for business. “There are not a whole lot of food options, stuff like that. … But as someone who comes in and out of the same terminal all the time, it’s quick, easy, in and out. And I do appreciate that fact.”
Pam Oettmeier of Stilwell also likes KCI. “I’d love to see it stay as it is,” she said recently as she waited for a flight. “…If it is to become more accessible to more travelers, they probably need to make it easier to change planes, keep some of the restaurants open later for travelers. But I like it the way it is.”
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Then there are people like Marcus Purdie, 34, of Lee’s Summit, a ramp supervisor guiding planes on the apron for American Airlines.
“Build it!” he said adamantly of a new terminal. “Why can’t we have nice things? I’m embarrassed (of KCI). ... It’s old. It’s outdated. There’s no restaurants inside. Everything is breaking down. It’s tough out here. It’s crowded. When we de-ice, there are traffic jams. ”
Even those who appreciate the relative convenience of the terminals can easily enumerate their flaws: crowded Terminal B parking, dark and foreboding interiors, a sparsity on either side of security of restaurants, shopping and concessions.
At times, especially early mornings, lines will snake the length of the corridors as if passengers were awaiting a rock concert.
The gates have small bathrooms and few power outlets for cellphones or laptops. Beneath the terminals, the infrastructure is said to be crumbling, necessitating improvements and upkeep that will need to be paid for no matter what.
Age may have its virtues, said airport officials, but it’s long taken its toll on KCI’s terminals. Although Kansas City Council members are split on exactly what to do at KCI, they tend to agree on one crucial point.
“Most of the council,” said Kansas City Councilwoman Jolie Justus, chairwoman of the council’s airport committee, “recognizes that something needs to be done.”
The question now is what that “something” should be — whether to renovate two of the existing terminals or build new — and what, if anything, Kansas City voters ultimately will support.
Here’s a primer on where matters stand:
Why is the issue of renovating terminals or building a new one being raised now?
Truth is that although the Kansas City Council is dealing with this issue now in a serious way, the matter of renovating terminals or building a new one is hardly new. By Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, KCI and other major airports are required to stay current by constantly assessing their needs and planning for the future. That process has been going on for decades.
Since 2008, two KCI master plans have recommended building a single terminal.
In May 2013, Kansas City Mayor Sly James formed an Airport Terminal Advisory Group composed of a broad cross-section of non-airline people, such as architects, financial executives, business and neighborhood leaders, and others. That advisory group in May 2014 also recommended a single terminal.
The city’s Aviation Department, which maintains and operates KCI, then brought in airport consultants and officials from airlines that lease space at KCI to join together in a leadership group to look at options.
The four-member leadership committee consists of three officials from the city’s Aviation Department and an airline executive, Steve Sisneros of Southwest Airlines, chosen to represent all the airlines that lease space at KCI. That committee has been drawing on information from various stakeholders over nearly two years of discussions, and has considered dozens of design options.
How many options are on the table? And how firm are they?
The leadership committee has presented four schematic drawings to the council’s airport committee.
At this point, the drawings are very general concepts — notions of what renovated terminals or a new terminal might look like and how they would operate. They are just working ideas.
What are the four ideas? What would they cost?
Two of the options would renovate Terminal A, which is now mothballed, and Terminal B. Two would build a new terminal on the site of a razed Terminal A.
According to cost estimates, the price of renovating the terminals actually would be slightly more than building a new one.
One renovation plan is estimated at $1.2 billion and the other at $1 billion.
The estimates for a new terminal: $964 million or $972 million.
How are the concepts alike? How do they differ?
All the concepts include much larger parking garages and new, two-level terminal buildings.
People catching a flight would check in and pass through security on the upper level. Those arriving from other cities would pick up their luggage and exit on the lower level.
All the concepts would attempt to maintain the ease of use of the current KCI, with close parking, entry and access to gates.
A closer look at each concept:
▪ Major Renovation A — estimated cost: $1.2 billion — would reuse terminals A and B and give each a larger parking garage. Each terminal also would be fronted by a two-level entry building. New roadways would allow those coming to the airport to enter on the upper level of either A or B, check in, and then pass through a single security entry point before fanning out to the existing horseshoe-shaped terminal.
The current security wall would be taken down, allowing greater access to updated seating, restaurants, shopping and restrooms.
▪ Major Renovation B — estimated cost: $1 billion — is similar. But instead of two entry buildings, terminals A and B would share a new entry building constructed between the terminals.
As in Major Renovation A, passengers would check their luggage and enter through a single security checkpoint, then fan out to either horseshoe-shaped terminal, with all the updated amenities and seating.
▪ New Terminal A — estimated cost: $964 million — would raze the now closed Terminal A and build anew. The terminal in this concept would be shaped like an H turned on its side.
A new roadway would allow those coming to the airport to enter on the upper level, which would include check-in and a single security entry point. From there, passengers would move into a terminal with mall-like shopping and dining amenities common to the newest U.S. airports, such as the one in Indianapolis, which backers cite as their model.
Moving walkways would carry passengers through the terminal.
▪ New Terminal B — estimated cost: $972 million — is similar to New Terminal A in pretty much every way, except the gate area would be shaped like antlers, allowing for addition of gates if needed. It would also have mall-like amenities and moving sidewalks.
Would any of the concepts add to Kansas City residents’ taxes?
No. City officials say they cannot emphasize this point more emphatically. Neither building a new terminal nor renovating old terminals would prompt a new tax or increase an existing tax. The airport is not supported through taxes.
The cost would be paid for with airport and airline fees — a major reason the airlines were brought into the conversation.
Does this mean the price of parking or an airline ticket will rise?
Aviation Department officials say it is possible that parking would go up, but, if so, only by a few dollars. The rise and fall of airline ticket prices, they say, has far more to do with supply and demand, fuel costs and other market forces than it does the construction of a new or renovated airport. Again, they say, if ticket prices rise, it is likely that only a small part of the increase would be the result of terminal construction.
Would the air terminal be bigger?
KCI now leases 30 gates to 10 airlines: Southwest, Alaska, Delta, United, Air Canada, Frontier, Spirit, American Airlines, Allegiant and Funjet. New plans call for 35 gates, with possible expansion to 42.
Isn’t there a fifth plan out there?
Yes. Convinced that less expensive alternatives might be found, City Councilwoman Teresa Loar and Kansas City-based Crawford Architects offered a proposal that would phase in renovations over time. The proposal would start by expanding Terminal A, essentially bumping out the front and adding parking, for an estimated $336 million. The terminal would provide 18 or 19 gates.
A second terminal could be done over time, bringing the total cost to about $672 million or more, given rising costs over time, proponents say.
Last week, a consultant working with the city’s Aviation Department and the leadership committee argued that the Crawford plan did not take into account future needs such as more accessible gates, baggage, security, personal technology and larger aircraft.
“They didn’t understand all that was required,” Lou Salomon, chief operating officer for AvAirPros, told the council’s airport committee.
He said the true cost of the Crawford plan would not be $672 million but about $984 million, and it still would not meet the future needs of either passengers or airlines.
“It’s not real,” Salomon said of the Crawford cost estimate.
Backers of the Crawford plan haven’t given up. “I need a lot more convincing,” Loar said after last week’s meeting.
The leadership committee plans to present a single recommendation to the City Council’s aviation committee no later than April 30. It also will present a general cost of construction.
The City Council then will decide whether to accept or reject the recommendation, or it could request changes.
What happens if the City Council agrees on a plan?
If the council agrees on either renovation or building a new terminal, it would place the measure before voters on a future ballot. It is very unlikely that that ballot would come any sooner than November, at the same time as the 2016 presidential election.
More likely it would come at some point in 2017. The council would be looking for the best ballot date for the measure to pass.
Who gets to vote?
Although about half of KCI’s passengers come from Kansas, only Kansas City residents would get to vote, because Kansas City owns the airport.