Make no mistake: Backers of a new single terminal for Kansas City International Airport aren’t pitching the idea because KCI is a security risk.
Instead, their aim is to keep Kansas City’s momentum going by building a sparkling new entry point for the hundreds of thousands of people who fly into our town each year.
A few years ago, in fact, the regional head of the Transportation Security Administration was blunt about the impact that a new terminal would have on security, saying it would have little effect.
With its three horseshoes, KCI has some advantages over a single terminal if someone were to go on a shooting rampage like the 2013 attack at Los Angeles International Airport, the TSA’s Della Jacono said.
The two distinct terminals at KCI have a circular design. That suggests that fewer people might be hurt than in a large open space.
“Does our layout add some security?” Jacono asked. “I think, yes, it does.”
But there’s also little doubt that a 1970s-era airport is hardly an ideal fit in a post-9/11 America. It was just a few years ago that KCI was called a key hub for terrorist travel.
The list of KCI’s security shortcomings includes the lack of floor-to-ceiling walls to divide boarding passengers from those milling around the concourse. (More than once, airport officials have seen a family member toss a set of keys over that wall to a passenger waiting to board). Extending the walls to the ceiling is problematic because of heating and cooling concerns.
Another issue: the inability to set up bollards along the sidewalk to stop a car from crashing into the concourse. The problem: The sidewalk is too narrow to accommodate them.
Still another worry: The skinny horseshoes are just 72 feet wide from the curbside wall to the big windows overlooking planes.
“Certainly if there’s an active shooter coming through there, that’s a pretty short distance...to get into the ticketed passenger area where the most people are,” said Kevin Foley, executive director of the Des Moines International Airport.
A new single terminal would remedy those concerns, and it also would provide more room for modern security screening devices, which are growing ever larger as technology improves.
In fact, new automated security lanes installed last month at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport aimed at accelerating the screening process are about one-third larger than machines they replaced. This latest iteration in screening devices allows passengers to move at their own pace as they remove shoes and belts and not delay faster-moving passengers.
Bringing such technology to KCI would likely require the elimination of seating or restrooms, given the narrow confines of the horseshoes.
The TSA also complains about its inability to take full advantage of its pre-screened passenger program at KCI due to “facility constraints.”
“This lack of access to trusted traveler programs...may affect the viability of (KCI) as a world-class aviation facility,” James Spriggs, Missouri’s federal security director, wrote last year.
Airports conceived 30 or 40 years ago “just weren’t designed for the requirements of today,” said Andrew Thomas, a partner with Grimshaw Architects, a major international airport design firm. KCI had barely opened when the government demanded that airports implement new security to crack down on hijackers.
Some fear that a single terminal would quickly translate into longer wait times for passenger screening because the number of checkpoints would be reduced to just one or two. But new airports are set up to handle large numbers with a centralized hub of screening devices and TSA agents. In some cases, wait times have actually improved. Experts say that the X-factor isn’t airport design, but the number of screeners the TSA employs at at given hour.
The TSA seems to have managed the situation well. In 2016, KCI ranked among the lowest of all airports in the number of security delays —defined as wait times of more than 20 minutes — between 2006 and 2015. Maintaining that record should be a priority if Kansas City moves ahead with a new airport terminal.
There’s no doubt a yes vote on Nov. 7 for a new single terminal would be a step forward when it comes to addressing the increasingly complex security dynamic facing airports worldwide.