There is no shortage of bad airport projects in the US. You know those airports, the ones that throw money into overbuilding palaces. (Exhibit A: the home of the scary bunny) But there are also, of course, good airport projects out there like the new Kansas City terminal effort. This seems like a no-brainer from every angle, but it may never happen. Next Tuesday, the people of Kansas City (and only Kansas City, Missouri) will vote on whether to move forward or not. Polls earlier this month showed an extremely narrow margin of victory for the project, but as we all know, a lot can change in a month. If this goes down to defeat next week, the people of Kansas City will have made a big mistake.
On November 11, 1972, Kansas City officially opened its gleaming new paradise. The trio of horseshoe-shaped terminals looked like a shamrock, and was designed with the traveler in mind. Locals would be able to drive right up to the curb near their gate and take just a few steps before boarding their flights. It was a vision for convenience… for almost a month.
In December of that year, the US decided to require airport security, and Kansas City’s airport instantly became obsolete. The airport was forced to shoehorn in security equipment and carve up the terminal the best it could in order to comply. This might sound like Dallas/Ft Worth to you, but it’s way worse. DFW was designed with wider terminals that were capable of handling the security systems that were needed. Kansas City has just never had enough space.
The airport obviously had to deal with this inefficiency the best it could, and it has done so for an impressively long time. In the early days of security, while space was at a premium, it wasn’t all that hard to go in and out to use the bathroom or get food. Fast forward to the security changes after 9/11, however, and things got ugly.
Post-9/11, people only wanted to go through security once because of the invasive harassment required every time. That meant the airport had to not only pull in more concessions and bathrooms, but it also had to figure out a way to better deal with connecting flights. Many airlines have tried to hub in Kansas City and failed. Modifications were made over time to make a hub operationally-viable. Security was reconfigured to allow more gates behind a single checkpoint (but still not that many). Most recently, Southwest has turned Kansas City into a prototypical mid-size city with many connecting opportunities. To fix the security problem for Southwest, a gerbil tube was stapled on to the side of the terminal to let people walk between Southwest’s secure areas for a connection. The amount of “cobbling together” required to keep this airport functioning is remarkable.
What you have today is a series of cramped boarding areas with far too many (albeit fewer than before) security checkpoints separating them from each other. Over the last few years, airlines have increasingly been upgauging aircraft (even Southwest has switched its growth focus from the formerly-137, now-143-seat 737-700s to 175-seat 737-800/MAX 8 aircraft.) At the same time, load factors have climbed. That means more people are on each flight, and the airport simply isn’t built to handle it. The place is squeezed.
As airlines consolidated, so did Kansas City, and that created opportunity to fix these problems once and for all. The airport shuttered Terminal A in 2014, leaving 34 gates between Terminals B and C. Today, 30 gates are in use with Alaska, Southwest, and Delta at Terminal B and the rest in Terminal C.
As if the constraints aren’t enough of a reason to want to build something new, the airport is starting to crumble. Several programs were put into place to extend the life of the structure, but something major had to be done.
The ultimate plan put forward by the airport was to take advantage of the closure of Terminal A and build a new, single, 35-gate terminal (expandable to 42 and beyond) on that site. Once that was built, Terminals B and C would be closed for good. This project with a single checkpoint and concourses capable of handling a higher volume of travelers would cost about $1 billion.
A billion dollars might sound like a lot, and it is. But looking at the situation Kansas City finds itself in, that is the most economical way to solve the airport’s problems. Some have suggested that airport should renovate, but such extensive renovations would be needed at the airport just to keep it running that it would probably cost half that just to retain the status quo. To make any needed improvements to gate areas, checkpoints, baggage handling, etc beyond that? It would easily become more expensive than just starting over.
The project is set to be financed through airport revenues and bonds that’ll be guaranteed by airport revenues. In other words, as always, no taxpayers will be harmed in the filming of this movie.
Kansas City’s cost per enplanement (CPE) is right around $7 today. With much of the debt falling off soon, building this whole terminal is expected to bring the CPE up to only $9. That’s quite reasonable, and the airlines agree. Southwest has been actively stumping for the project. I don’t believe a single airline is against it. That certainly says something.
So, uh, who IS against it? Apparently, nearly half the voters. The airport is run by the city of Kansas City, so it’s up to the city to make the decision. There has been all kinds of ridiculous local political back-and-forth on this, and thanks to a citizen petition, it now goes on the ballot. What’s nuts here, however, is that maybe a quarter of the locals who use the airport actually reside in the city, so the other 75 percent are held hostage by what the city decides. Heck, most of the local users don’t even reside in the same state. (Kansas is just a hop across the Missouri River.)
I remain confused by the opposition. There’s one Facebook group that goes by the misnomer “Friends of KCI.” It seems to be pushing a fantasy renovation plan that would somehow be cheaper than the new-build and would theoretically solve all the airport’s problems. I don’t see how that’s possible. Probably the most coherent argument I’ve seen against the plan is that locals like the convenience of the existing structure. But those people probably haven’t been shoe-horned into those holdrooms for long periods of time. It’s a design that has to go.
The rest of the arguments against really seem mostly centered around the idea that “the government says we should do this and the government is bad.” Welcome to politics in America, 2017 edition. There’s no rational argument that I can see. Instead it just jumps around to things as strange as claims about ancient slave burial grounds or rumors of a lost mythical “Pilot Hub” for Southwest.
The reality here is pretty straightforward. Kansas City needs to spend money to fix this. A new terminal is the most economical option that also happens to improve the experience dramatically. There’s no financial risk to the local taxpayers, and the airlines want it. It’s remarkable to me that this has a chance of losing on Tuesday.