They actually counted the steps.
For travelers wondering whether the walking distance from curb to airline gate would increase under a proposed new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport, the answer is … yes. But not so you have to put on your running shoes.
Planners counted the steps and compared them to distances in a new terminal concept, as it gets down to crunch time for making a decision about the future of KCI.
Step counting, security checkpoint areas, restrooms, and concessions were among numerous factors that were front and center Tuesday as the City Council’s Airport Committee considered a top priority in any airport modernization plan.
The topic was convenience.
That’s what KCI is known for, especially the quick trip for passengers from curb to ticket counter to gate.
But that can’t be the only measurement, aviation officials said Tuesday, as they outlined all the other conveniences the current airport lacks.
“We know how important walking distance is to Kansas Citians,” Aviation Department deputy director Justin Meyer told the committee, which is considering a nearly $1 billion plan to replace the existing terminals with a new, single-terminal design.
However, Meyer reminded the committee that convenience also refers to things KCI needs: sufficient and ample restrooms; comfortable seating and lounges for waiting passengers and children; roomy gate areas where people can enjoy a meal and surf the web; ease of access to ground transportation; updated baggage equipment; and space for airlines to park and maneuver their planes.
Meyer and airline consultant Lou Salomon of AvAirPros said a new single terminal can still provide reasonable walking lengths while also addressing many of KCI’s existing shortcomings.
Meyer told the committee that the shortest walking distance from curb to gate now is 119 steps to Gate 87 in Terminal C, but once there, passengers find a gate that is extremely cramped. The longest distance is 411 steps to Gate 69 in Terminal C.
There is no final design for a new terminal, but preliminary concepts would have walking distances range from 234 steps to 544 steps. Some of that longer distance could possibly be alleviated by movable walkways, although the committee has also learned that movable walkways are falling out of favor in other airport designs.
Meanwhile, a new single terminal could have a more contemporary lobby, a more efficient security checkpoint area, larger and more pleasant wait areas, more post-security restrooms, and better concessions, Meyer said.
Salomon, an AvAirPros consultant representing the airlines in KCI’s terminal planning, said the trend in airport design is to tailor customer service to a traveler’s needs and to “create a hassle-free environment.”
He said that involves a flexible lobby design that can handle equipment for the vast majority of passengers who will no longer have paper tickets or need ticket counters. They’ll just use their cellphone apps and other handheld devices at kiosks or other self-service check-in areas. The ability to tag one’s own baggage also continues to evolve.
And as technology changes rapidly, Salomon said, the lobby needs to adapt to new equipment as well.
Smart security, he said, is also trending toward fewer, shorter lines, and better risk-based screening equipment. But that requires more space than KCI’s concourses now allow.
Gate areas are being designed, he said, to include spaces where passengers can eat and use their laptops, places where children can play, and quiet zones for people to relax. That’s difficult in KCI’s narrow concourses.
Meyer said other newer airports have also created a successful “sense of place” that highlights a city’s uniqueness and signature attractions. So, for example, the Indianapolis airport has race cars, Nashville has live music areas and Tampa has palm trees.
But committee member Dan Fowler said most airline passengers don’t care about that.
“I don’t go to the airport for my fine dining, for my Christmas shopping, or to listen to live music,” Fowler said, adding that he hopes any airport improvements will simply help people to “get in and out quickly.”
Aviation director Mark VanLoh said that goal remains paramount, in preliminary sketches of a new airport terminal. “This terminal will be very efficient,” he said.
Convenience has been a constant focus for many people concerned about change at KCI. In 2007 and 2010, J.D. Power and Associates ranked KCI as the most convenient midsized airport, but in recent years those convenience rankings have slipped.
In J.D. Power’s 2015 ranking of airport consumer satisfaction, newer airports like Indianapolis and Raleigh-Durham ranked high, while Kansas City ranked 10th from the bottom among midsized airports, not far ahead of Oakland, New Orleans and St. Louis.
KCI did its own customer survey in 2015, which Meyer said showed higher levels of satisfaction from locals and leisure travelers than from business passengers and those with long layovers. The highest satisfaction involved ease of getting around and security screen wait times, while restrooms and concessions got low satisfaction ratings.
In general, KCI still did well, with 67 percent of passengers ranking the airport above average or well above average in overall convenience.
Conversely, many passengers feel like new airports are built and designed for everyone except the passengers. That was the focus of a recent essay in The New York Times, in which writer Chris Holbrook complained about airports that are fabulous monuments to their architects but that are cold, impersonal, and not at all passenger-friendly.
While the airlines and aviation department are recommending a new single terminal as the most affordable and practical option, a Kansas City-based architecture firm is still urging renovations to the existing terminals.
Crawford Architects is heading a team of architecture and engineering firms that want to preserve the convenience of the current horseshoe terminals.
While city officials have generally rejected their proposal, Crawford officials will present their plan to the public Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. at the Plaza Library. Supporters say they still believe this plan deserves more careful consideration from the city.
This is a crucial month for KCI terminal planning. The council’s Airport Committee members travel to Dallas at the end of this week to hear Southwest Airline executives’ perspective on the airport and its future needs.
Then at 1:30 p.m. on April 26 at City Hall, the leadership committee that has been studying KCI’s future — made up of aviation officials, airline representatives, and consultants — lays out its recommendation to the City Council for major capital improvements, costs and how to pay for them.
It’s then up to the City Council to decide whether to put that plan to city voters, possibly in August or November of this year.