Charles Lindbergh dedicated Kansas City’s first airport near downtown in 1927 and it served our community for 45 years. When the airlines began replacing propeller aircraft with new jets, they demanded an airport with longer, safer runways. But city leadership and citizens responded with “no” for nearly a decade. The airport was convenient and it was impossible to lengthen the runways, which are located between the Briarcliff bluffs to the north and Missouri River to the south.
In July 1965, a Continental Boeing 707 landing at what is now Wheeler Downtown Airport was unable to stop on the runway and broke open on the Missouri River levee. The decision to move the airport north to the new TWA maintenance facility was swift and logical: Two long, safe runways were already in place, surrounded by a large area of undeveloped, inexpensive land. TWA was the largest employer in the region at the time.
I had just returned from Vietnam and was working at Kivett & Myers Architects, who with Burns & McDonnell were selected to design the new airport. At that time, aircraft types, travel patterns and technology were entirely different, and security was not an issue. Commercial air travel was in its infancy. TWA had just discontinued flying its famous four-engine, propeller-driven Super Constellation and was serving lobster, steak to order, wine in stemmed glasses and free cigarettes to be smoked in flight.
My colleagues and I, in collaboration with the airlines serving our city at the time and led by TWA, set out to design the most convenient airport terminal in America. After it opened in 1972, Lufthansa documented the results with a global survey that declared Kansas City International the “airport of the future.”
Public safety was one of the important criteria for the design of this new facility, but security was not a consideration. (Ironically, a commercial flight was hijacked the day KCI opened.) But on Sept. 11, 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon redefined our sense of security and rendered the terminals at KCI obsolete.
Post-9/11 security screening and the continuous wall that cuts the terminals functionally in half have transformed the terminal experience. Unfortunately, the security wall doesn’t meet federal guidelines, because it stops short of the ceiling to allow the existing heating and cooling systems to function. It separates passengers from services such as food and beverage, toilets, newsstands and shopping, and it reappropriates space from waiting areas to make room for security equipment and the redundant amenities inside.
The net result is that the shortest walk in aviation has become much longer, with frustrating lines and smaller, crowded waiting rooms with limited services. Passengers on some connecting flights must take shuttle buses between terminals and pass through security again, adding confusion, time and frustration.
The current KCI creates barriers to airlines and companies considering Kansas City. For example, in 2001, 18 percent of our arriving passengers were connecting to other flights. Today it has dropped to just 4 percent. Last year Southwest Airlines added 12 new flights to Missouri. Ten went to St. Louis (in spite of their higher passenger fees) and only two to Kansas City. This will only get worse with larger airplanes.
Forty-five years after KCI opened, it can no longer accommodate the aircraft or systems required to meet passenger, airline and security requirements. Déjà vu Wheeler airport.
If we had known then what we know now, we would have designed a single terminal. A single security area will accommodate new, faster security systems, and once passengers leave security they will have immediate access to all the airlines and services at the airport. The passenger-holding areas will be the right size, as will the infrastructure to serve larger aircraft efficiently with state-of-the-art baggage handling, fueling and deicing systems.
Visitors arriving at the airport will be greeted in a welcome center that can celebrate our unique history, culture, services and opportunities.
It’s complicated, and especially so for me as a preservationist, designer of the existing terminals, and member of the Hometown Team, but the evidence is clear: In 1973 KCI served 3.8 million passengers very well (with completely different equipment and expectations). But by 2016, the world of aviation had changed and 11 million passengers were served poorly.
Numerous consultant teams have studied this issue since 1995 and all of them plus the 24-member Airport Terminal Advisory Group in 2014 reached the same conclusion: The existing terminals do not meet our needs today and a new single terminal is the best approach for the future of our region.
After all the confusion, conflicting reports, missteps and background noise, we are left with two real options:
▪ Vote yes and accept the offer by the city, airlines and a development team with impressive experience to build a new $1 billion state-of-the-art single terminal, to be paid for by the travelers (88 percent of whom live outside Kansas City). The airlines will be contractually bound to provide the airport with sufficient revenues to meet this obligation.
▪ Vote no, or don’t vote, and waste $500 million over the next few years to allow the continued use of the obsolete terminals, which the airlines don’t want to operate. This will lead directly to the airlines and companies considering Kansas City to make decisions we will regret.
Join me on Nov. 7 and vote yes on Question 1.
Bob Berkebile is principal emeritus architect for BNIM.