The KCI convenience myth: Kansas City’s outdated airport is familiar but not functional

Rene Perla, senior at K-State, discusses KCI airport

"Right now there is just one restaurant open."
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"Right now there is just one restaurant open."

Those who like Kansas City International Airport just the way it is always say the same thing in its favor: The airport is so convenient.

“This is the best,’’ said Sudha Chaudhuri, of Kansas City, who was at the airport picking up some visitors arriving from India last week. She herself frequently travels to California and much prefers KCI to “those huge airports where you have to walk for miles.”

It’s true that it’s now just a few steps from curbside drop-off to gate, and true, too, that if Kansas City does build a new single terminal, we will have to walk farther to catch a flight.

But there are so few direct flights out of KCI in its current configuration that you can walk a few steps to your gate and then spend many more hours than necessary catching connecting flights to wherever you’re going. And how convenient is that?

To us, one of the main selling points of the proposed new terminal is the expectation that airlines would add more direct flights out of here, and maybe even some international flights.

Ahead of a Nov. 7 referendum on KCI, Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate, designers of the proposed new airport, last week unveiled initial drawings that show an H-shaped structure of two concourses with 35 gates that would be able to handle larger passenger jets. The new terminal’s arrivals and departures would be on separate levels, with curbside service for both, more parking, and more room in general.

The plans also include a two-story fountain, more and better restaurants, a performance space for live music and people-movers that would compensate for the longer walks to gates.

The current airport’s familiarity is a comfort, but what frequent flyers out of KCI have also gotten used to, along with easy drop-offs, are limited options and long ticket and security lines at peak travel hours.

As it is now, once cleared by security, travelers often have to stand or sit on the floor and jockey for electrical outlets. You had better not be hungry or thirsty, and if you are sufficiently desperate to overpay for a salad that tastes like cardboard, you then must balance it on your lap, if you’re lucky enough to have snagged a chair.

The airport doesn’t need to double as a shopping mall, but we agree with two college students whose dining choices while waiting for a flight the other night were a sandwich or a sandwich. “We need more restaurants, more variety,” said Rene Perla, a senior at Kansas State. “Just look, right now this is the only place open.”

Even travelers who love KCI as is see that it needs to, as Janice Chenoweth, of Farley, Missouri, put it, “bump it up a little bit. It’s the easiest airport to get in and out of, but we just walked all the way from the other end to get a coffee. I’ve had to sit here for a little while and it’s dead in here, with no music or anything.”

Down the hall, a Florida couple with a baby was stretched out on the floor after missing their flight, even though they felt they’d arrived in plenty of time.

And at baggage pickup, travelers arriving on a flight from Dallas didn’t seem to know the local lore about how easy KCI supposedly is to travel through. “They need to update the terminal,’’ said Jim Slater, who is from Texas, because “with the lines for TSA, it’s just not the space you need.”

Pengte Suoyingbo, a nutritionist from Independence, Missouri, was clear-eyed, too: “This is an international airport? It’s three little circles, and it doesn’t look so good.” OK, looks aren’t everything.

But while we appreciate the resilience Kansas Citians show in putting up with a place where it’s easy to park but hard to be, we just can’t ignore that KCI’s lack of creature comforts and the lack of direct flights make it more inconvenient all the time. We deserve better, and with a yes vote next month, we can have it.