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Sam Mellinger: I love KCI, but Kansas City needs a new airport

There are many reasons to love Kansas City International Airport. But it’s still outdated and inefficient, writes columnist Sam Mellinger.
There are many reasons to love Kansas City International Airport. But it’s still outdated and inefficient, writes columnist Sam Mellinger. kmyers@kcstar.com

The debate around Kansas City International Airport has become something like our own cable news show, complete with opposing sides staking out militant stances and throwing in plenty of name-calling. So against my better judgment, I offer some nuance.

I love KCI. I love it for sentimental reasons. Once, I got a flat tire on the way to catch a flight to see my girlfriend. I ran to the turnpike booth to call a friend (before I had a cellphone), we passed the “KCI 16 miles sign” exactly 16 minutes before my flight was to take off and still made it — a combination of my promise to pay my friend’s speeding ticket, gate-side drop-off, an amazing ticket agent, a short flight delay and a passenger who walked off the plane after boarding.

That girlfriend, after some twists and turns, is now my wife.

But it’s not just nostalgia. For my very specific needs and priorities, KCI is the perfect airport (other than its location).

I never check a bag, so the dependably awful bag claim doesn’t bother me. I have priority boarding, so I don’t care about the lines during peak hours. Circle parking allows me to walk from my car to the gate in a few minutes, and I know a trick with economy parking to do the same in less than 10 minutes. I find eating meals at an airport cumbersome, so the food options don’t bother me.

When I fly, my entire goal is to spend the least amount of time possible in the airport. So KCI is my perfect match, and if it remained our airport forever, I would be perfectly happy.

I find people who say a new airport will attract business to be fools, and I find people who say Kansas City has a bad reputation because the airport is dark or whatever to be superficial at best.

I also recognize reality. The airport is outdated in important ways, and that will only get worse. My travel experience and priorities are specific, and there are many who find the unpredictable security lines to be scary and inconvenient.

KCI may be the absolute worst airport in the country for a layover, and its shortcomings make traveling with kids even more difficult.

Kansas City taxpayers will not pay for a new airport, and if that is what the airlines want, then it’s what we should do — particularly if it means any more flights.

So, yes, let’s build a new terminal, even though many of the arguments for it are hogwash.

When and if KCI is replaced, some will make grand declarations about Kansas City being revolutionized. Businesses will come, they’ll say; tourism will increase. This is baloney, same as every economic impact study trotted out to justify the public costs to build new professional sports stadiums and facilities.

It’s counterproductive, too. We need a new airport for logical reasons, not make-believe economics.

We need a new airport because what we have now is outdated and inefficient. Replacing KCI is inevitable, and costs will only rise the longer we delay.

Those who say a new airport will improve Kansas City are absolutely correct, but not for the reasons they usually offer. We need this because the debate is sucking up energy and time that would be much better spent on real problems that have nothing to do with the airport.

The sooner we agree on a new terminal, the sooner the city’s intellectual capital, energy and resources can be focused on improving schools and roads, lowering crime, expanding the streetcar and continuing the terrific improvements to downtown.

Because for all there is to love about Kansas City, we have real problems and real opportunities.

This is what’s going to decide the future of Kansas City. Not whether you can find a power outlet and buy a burrito past airport security.

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