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Debate over billion-dollar single-terminal airport heats up

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A heated debate over the fate of Kansas City International (KCI) is revving up fast. The question: Does Kansas City need a new single-terminal billion-plus-dollar airport?

So far, public reaction to the idea of a single terminal “has ranged from lukewarm to hostile,” according to a recent Kansas City Star story by Dave Helling and Lynn Horsley. Earlier this year, KCI’s Aviation Department paid local public relations firm Global Prairie Marketing $117,000 to help change the public’s mind on the issue and get behind the project, but it's expected to be a hard sell to frequent fliers.

Prominent on the “build the single terminal and they will come” side ("they" being more airlines and more passengers) are Mark VanLoh, director of aviation, Kansas City Aviation Department, who oversees all aspects of KCI; Mayor Sly James, who’s convened a task force to make recommendations about the airport’s future; Kansas City Star editorial writers; and KC Star columnist Yael Abouhalkah.

Prominent on the “Don’t built it because the single-terminal airport will be an expensive KC boondoggle that seriously inconveniences Kansas City travelers” are the majority of Kansas Citians, including most local frequent fliers; Crosby Kemper III, chairman of the Show-Me Institute and director of the Kansas City Public Library; and, most recently, Southwest Airlines, KCI’s largest tenant.

“We’re the anchor tenant, so costs are important to us,” said Ron Ricks, Southwest executive vice president, in a recent Kansas City Star story. “A new $1.2 billion terminal would triple our costs. That’s a problem.” Ricks said Southwest, which operates an average of 70 flights daily at KCI, believes that the current runway and gate capacities are more than adequate for future air service, and that the airport functions efficiently.

In a May 22, 2013 story in The Pitch, Steve Vockrodt framed the argument this way: “There are reasonable cases to make in advocating for a new, single-terminal airport design, with security being perhaps the foremost. But Kansas Citians shouldn’t be confused about what a new terminal will not bring: more airline business and more travel options. The experience of other new terminals over the past six years shows that, as airlines consolidate and eschew consumer options in favor of profitability, $1.2 billion of construction at KCI’s Terminal A is no guarantee of an increase in flights, passengers or revenue.”

As this examiner reported a few years back, frequent fliers love Kansas City International Airport because it’s a day at the beach compared to most big-city airports. Basically, it’s like a small-town airport with big-city benefits—direct flights to many major cities, easy access, and plenty of parking. In a J.D. Power and Associates 2007 North America Airport Satisfaction Study, Kansas City International Airport ranked No. 1 among large-size airports (receiving five out of five stars in all categories except baggage claim in which it got four). In February 2008, U.S. News & World Report ranked the airport the “third least miserable airport” in the United States, based on the 47 busiest airports in the country.

Kansas City International (KCI)—officially coded MCI, which originally stood for “Mid-Continent International”—features a unique structure comprising three terminals in the shape of rings. Each ring has short-term parking in the center of the ring. This design makes it easy for travelers to park, walk no more than a hundred feet, and go directly to their gate. Arriving travelers can leave their gate, and walk immediately out of the terminal without passing through any corridors. Slogans at the time of the airport’s 1966 bond issue were “The world’s shortest walk to fly” and “Drive to your gate.”

If the airline-hub game had played out differently, KCI might well have ended up like Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport (the nation’s busiest airport), Chicago/O’Hare International (the nation’s second busiest), or the Denver International Airport (which, at 53-square-miles in area, is the nation’s largest—and more than twice the size of New York City’s Manhattan Island). The Denver airport, in particular, never brought in the promised airline business—after cost overruns ran wild. Southwest Airlines, which operates 40 percent of the flights at KCI, more than double runner-up United Airlines, may have the strongest case in the debate.

Southwest’s Ron Ricks also made these points:

• “Customers don’t make a choice of flights based on amenities; it’s more based on choice of flights and cost. Our question is how many amenities do you want at what cost?”

• “A $1.2 billion proposal would be a disincentive for airlines to service Kansas City…We’re confident we could come up with something for the community at a much lower cost than what’s being presented here.”

• “Right now, Kansas City’s lower operating cost gives it an advantage over larger hub airports such as Chicago O’Hare and Atlanta Hartsfield when it comes to playing host to connecting flights. That could change if costs jump substantially.”

• “Connecting passengers are really important. We wouldn’t be profitable on local passengers alone.”

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