Editorial: Kansas City should embrace a new airport terminal. Here’s why.

A New KCI: Timeline of events

Burns & McDonnell face key deadlines to get their proposal approved by the airlines, voters and City Council.
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Burns & McDonnell face key deadlines to get their proposal approved by the airlines, voters and City Council.

For nearly two months, Kansas City has engaged in an intense discussion about the future of its airport.

The debate began in May, when local engineering firm Burns & McDonnell went public with its own plan for a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport and when city leaders said they were targeting a November vote on the issue.

Until now, much of the argument has involved process — how many proposals to consider, how to pay for the facility, how to make sure Kansas Citians are full participants in this 50-year decision.

The Star has worked hard to ensure the airport discussion is open and transparent. We’re now more comfortable that it is.

That means voters can move beyond process to begin considering the merits of a new terminal. Why does the city need a new facility? What should it look like? What should it cost? When can it be built?

We support a new terminal at KCI. Today, we begin a series of editorials explaining why.

To be clear: The specifics of a terminal plan are still uncertain and subject to change. Voters will want to carefully study the details before deciding how they’ll vote.

We’ll insist on a campaign that’s honest and fair.

But the fundamental arguments are known. And they all point to the need for a 21st-century Kansas City airport.

▪ KCI is not convenient.

Supporters of the existing three-terminal horseshoe configuration at KCI tout its convenience as its most important feature. It’s easy to park, find a ticket counter, navigate security and reach a gate, they say. Luggage carousels are readily found. Picking up and dropping off passengers is quickly accomplished.

Yet frequent flyers know the claim of convenience is largely a myth. At certain departure times, ticket and security lines stretch 100 or 150 people deep. Dropping off luggage for inspection is often a confusing headache. Security stations are crowded and sometimes understaffed.

Worse, passengers who clear security are penned inside glass-enclosed waiting areas, sitting in uncomfortable chairs and confined to cramped spaces that lack amenities found in other terminals.

Electrical outlets and USB charging stations are at a premium. It’s hard to find room for a carry-on bag. Be sure to buy your newspaper before entering the gate area.

Waiting for your luggage? Prepare to push past your fellow travelers.

A new terminal could address all of those concerns. The vast majority of travelers surely would trade a little additional walking for a more convenient, comfortable and contemporary facility.

▪ KCI is not welcoming.

For visitors from other cities, KCI’s dark, tunnel-like terminal can be an unpleasant experience. Woe be to visitors who face a long layover, who must search for a bar or restaurant that may or may not be open. Shopping is virtually nonexistent.

It’s true that Kansas City needs to build a terminal for its own residents’ needs, not for those who live somewhere else. But outside travelers are paying for the cost of the terminal, too. Some accommodation must be made for their comfort.

Visitors deserve a first-class terminal. Kansas City will soon build a new convention hotel designed to bring hundreds of thousands of people to our community. What will they say when they get home? That Kansas City’s airport resembles a warehouse?

Business executives, tourists and other travelers count on us to get it right. We should make them feel at home.

▪ KCI is not secure.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security revised its inspection protocols for flights entering the U.S. We can be sure those regulations will change repeatedly in the years to come as the terror threat changes.

The scattered security checkpoints at KCI — now considered a convenience and a strength — are actually a problem. They require more screeners than at other airports, adding to cost. Screening machines are crammed into spaces that were never designed to hold them.

A new terminal should solve both problems. Pre-flight screening will never be completely comfortable, here or anywhere else, but a new terminal should make it more bearable than it is today.

Safety isn’t limited to passenger security. The street curbs at KCI are too close to gates and aircraft, creating an easy opportunity for anyone who wants to disrupt airport operations.

And a new terminal would separate car traffic — arriving cars would use a different road than departing vehicles. Anyone who has dodged car traffic at KCI will appreciate the change.

▪ KCI is not sustainable.

A new KCI will cost about $1 billion, paid for by airport users. Rebuilding the existing terminals might cost half as much. But a rehab would last 10 years at best. In 2027, Kansas City would be right back where it is now, debating a new terminal — only next time the project might cost $1.5 billion or more.

Meanwhile, passengers would be paying to heat and light unused terminal space. Weeds would grow in the cracks of unused pavement. Rust, erosion and wear and tear would continue.

Airport terminals aren’t like sports stadiums — or any other public facility. A Kansas City terminal must serve almost one million passengers a month, safely and conveniently, while protecting air travelers and employees from harm.

It’s a difficult, intricate and important task. The new terminal must be adaptable, well designed and well built. It must be cost-effective and appealing.

The airlines have said they want a new airport. Increasingly, passengers agree.

A new terminal will create jobs and opportunity and will move Kansas City into the 21st-century when it comes to travel and commerce.

Kansas City should embrace a new KCI.