The airlines serving Kansas City International Airport tried to persuade the City Council and the public Tuesday that now is the time, and the price is right, to replace the existing three terminals with a new single terminal airport.
“We believe the new terminal concept maximizes the dollars spent for both customer convenience and operational effectiveness,” Steve Sisneros, director of airport affairs for Southwest Airlines, told the City Council, saying he was speaking for all the airline users at KCI.
“The airlines have agreed to take the risk on the project,” he said.
Sisneros said the airlines have agreed to back the debt on a new terminal, which is projected to cost about $964 million in 2015 dollars. He said they do not agree to back the debt or help finance any other option for modernizing the airport, such as major renovations to the existing 43-year-old horseshoe terminals.
“We don’t support the renovation,” he told the council.
He also said the project would be expected to increase the airlines’ costs at KCI by just $2.10 per passenger at KCI, to about $9 per passenger. That cost, he said, is still relatively low compared with what airlines pay to operate at other medium-size airports.
Sisneros emphasized the project costs cannot, by law, be paid for with general taxpayer dollars but are paid for by ticket fees, airline leases, parking and concession revenues, and other airport funds.
“We worked so hard on a budget that is affordable,” he said, flanked by representatives from United, Delta, Frontier and American Airlines. “Everyone is unified on a process from the airline side.”
But that certainly doesn’t mean the City Council or the public is unified on this approach. The City Council did not act Tuesday on the recommendation and appeared sharply divided on how to proceed.
City Councilwoman Teresa Loar said she was sick of the city’s constant drumbeat for the new terminal plan, with no consideration for dissenting views.
“I’m tired of hearing this side,” Loar said. She reminded Southwest that Kansas City voters, many of whom want to preserve their existing airport, “will be the last word” on this decision.
She asked Southwest what would happen if the voters don’t go along with the airlines’ view.
Sisneros emphasized the airlines have no intention of pulling out of KCI, but he said they will continue to be very limited regarding expansion or enhancement of service with the existing airport. American Airlines representatives also told the council that KCI’s existing geographic layout is very constraining to them, restricting them to smaller planes, and they can’t expand their Kansas City business the way they would like.
Still, some council members, including Mayor Sly James and Jermaine Reed, strongly support the new plan.
“You can’t build a world class city with a 1972 airport,” Reed said. “We have to plan and build for future generations to come.”
The airlines said they hope a financing plan can go to voters in August, but that would require the council to vote on ballot language by May 19, and that’s far from certain.
Tuesday’s presentation culminated two years of study and negotiation by the airlines, their consultants, and aviation officials over how to modernize KCI.
Since last year, they have been refining studies and gathering more data showing it is actually less expensive and preferable to replace the existing horseshoe configuration with a new single terminal.
The aviation leadership team gradually became convinced that building new was better than renovation, and they insisted a new terminal could retain the convenience that the public likes about KCI.
The conclusion they presented represents quite a reversal from the initial position taken a few years ago by Southwest Airlines, by far the largest carrier at KCI.
Just three years ago, various Southwest Airlines executives told the city and The Kansas City Star that they didn’t want a $1 billion airport project and that they thought renovations at KCI could be accomplished more inexpensively and practicably.
“Customers don’t make a choice of flights based on amenities; it’s more based on choice and cost,” Ron Ricks, then-Southwest executive vice president, told The Star in 2013. He said he thought the airlines could come up with something at a much lower cost than the $1.2 billion being contemplated at the time.
In April 2014, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told a citizens panel that KCI should focus on keeping costs low. At the time, Kelly agreed KCI needed improving, but he was noncommittal on renovation versus building new.
Then in June 2014, the airlines, led by Southwest, began partnering with the Aviation Department and consultants to figure out the best approach. They have now decided a new single terminal is actually less expensive in the long run. Meanwhile, they say a new terminal would accomplish more of the operational, technology, baggage, concession and security changes needed in the 21st century aviation industry.
Sisneros acknowledged this is a major change in the airlines’ position. He said that when they started working with the Aviation Department, they assumed major renovation would be cheaper and more practical. But he said that as they studied option after option and concept after concept, “we slowly began to realize that our original assumptions were wrong.”
Key elements of the new plan:
▪ A 35-gate, 775,000-square-foot new terminal would be built where Terminal A is now, with the possibility of expansion to 42 gates. KCI now has 29 gates.
Although the airport has not yet been designed, the concept calls for walking distances from curb to gate ranging from the shortest distance of 234 steps to the longest of 560 steps, versus 119 steps to 443 steps in the current airport. The current plan also calls for movable walkways in the new terminal.
▪ The new terminal would have a centralized security area as passengers enter and two concession nodes past security, along with more spacious gate areas.
▪ It would have a new 6,500-space parking garage, plus about 2,000 spaces on adjacent surface lots. That compares with about 4,200 parking structure spaces and 1,700 close-in surface parking spaces now. The new terminal would have a two-level roadway with separate entrances for departing and arriving passengers.
▪ If voters approve the financing, it will take about 18 months to design the new structure, with construction taking about three years after that. City planners hope the new terminal could open in 2021 or 2022.
It will still be up to the City Council to decide whether to accept this recommendation, and the 10 council members at Tuesday’s meeting appeared quite divided over the plan. The council’s Airport Committee has meetings scheduled for May 10 and May 17 to try to find a forward path.
Even if the council reaches a consensus, the plan and financing still must be submitted to Kansas City voters later this year.
On Tuesday, Sisneros strongly urged the council to move for an August election.
But City Councilwoman Jolie Justus feared that may be too soon.
“A lot of folks are concerned about a turnaround that quickly,” she said.
Councilman Dan Fowler also said it’s going to be hard to educate Kansas City residents that quickly that this project deserves their vote.
Sisneros said the airlines have been involved in this process for two years, believe it is sound and collaborative, and fear that costs might only go up with further delays.
Some critics remain very upset, saying that the council has not given full consideration to a rival renovation plan. Crawford Architects and a team of global aviation firms submitted a different vision for phased renovations at KCI. But city officials concluded it did not meet the airport’s needs and questioned its cost estimates, and the council’s Airport Committee has never had a formal presentation on the Crawford plan.
One key skeptic remains U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, who represents the congressional district that includes KCI. In a statement after the meeting Tuesday, Graves said he believes the single terminal project would remove the convenient walking distances and security setup at the existing airport.
Still, James said the airport needs to change to support growth, and it’s time to act.
“We are at a critical decision point,” he said. “If we miss this moment, then the opportunity will be gone for years and KCI will continue to fall behind other cities. A single terminal is inevitable. The question is when. If you think something is inevitable, do it now.”