On Tuesday, Kansas City voters overwhelmingly approved a new single terminal at the airport. Though polls showed it could have been a nail-biter, it wasn’t. The residents came to their senses and decided to move forward. After my post last week talking about the situation, I spoke with Steve Sisneros, Senior Director of Airport Affairs for Southwest about what it would mean if the vote passed. Now that it has, here’s what residents can look forward to.
The problems with the old terminal were fairly obvious to an outsider. The buildings were incredibly narrow, and the requirement to install increasingly bulky security equipment made it really challenging to create a decent customer experience. Local passengers loved the ability to get dropped off at the door and walk just a few feet to get to the gate, but that’s just not a practical way to build an airport these days. The customer experience suffered, but sometimes, the airlines don’t care about that. In this case, they did.
Southwest is the largest airline at the airport, and it wants to do more. I’ll let Steve explain what has been holding the airline back.
Kansas City, geographically, is ideally situated mid-continent…. St Louis is a good comparison because it’s a similar size market and we specifically create what we call ICOs, “Intentional Connect Opportunities” where we create more schedules to create connecting opportunities…. In Kansas City we do have connecting flights but we just don’t have it to that degree [as in St Louis], so the way our head of commercial has described it is that we specifically throttle down [Kansas City] because the customer experience is so bad.
Airlines can operate in some pretty terrible facilities (see: LaGuardia), so that’s quite the indictment when an airline says it can’t operate more flights specifically because the terminal is such a mess. It’s not like there’s a shortage of gates, either. It just doesn’t function well enough to support Southwest’s desired operation.
Once the new terminal opens, Southwest will have the greenlight to grow further. St Louis might not like that.
We specifically flow more over St Louis from a mid-continent geographic perspective than we do over Kansas City, and that’s done purposefully. We have probably 25 to 30 more flights in St Louis than [Kansas City] because of that.
Well heck, how could the voters not have approved? Some were concerned that Southwest wouldn’t actually commit to adding 25 to 30 more flights. By the time the terminal opens, who knows what the environment will be like, so that’s fair. No airline can commit to something that specific several years down the line. But this is as clear of a signal as I’ve seen that Southwest will grow.
What might those additional flights look like?
There are some markets where the local market won’t support it, say Seattle. We may serve it nonstop from [Kansas City] during the summer but not the winter. But if you have connections that flow over [Kansas City], that may turn that seasonal Seattle nonstop into year-round.
It’s also not just the number of flights, but the size of the airplane. As of now, Steve says that Southwest isn’t intentionally holding back larger 175-seat 737-800s and MAX 8s. But as the fleet mix continues to shift toward those larger airplanes from the smaller 143-seat 737-700s, it will need to hold back bigger airplanes until the terminal opens.
Some were concerned about the price tag (including some comments in last week’s post). Southwest says the price tag isn’t out of line here. If it were a proverbial “Taj Mahal,” Southwest wouldn’t be supporting this. Even though a billion dollars sounds like a lot, there are many things to help offset that cost. Thanks to the cramped nature of the facility today, Steve notes that “Kansas City has one of the lowest concession programs in the country” in terms of revenue generated. A new terminal will change that and start to fill the coffers. With cost per enplanement pegged to about $9 once this is done, the airlines aren’t overly concerned.
A few locals may still not be happy that this means the end of the short walk from car to gate, but they can take solace in one huge improvement. Kansas City still does not have an inline baggage system today, so if you check your bag, you have to lug it over to a scanner from the ticket counter after getting it tagged. The new facility will fix all that.
Congratulations to everyone in Kansas City for making the right choice. Now… the long process to build the terminal can finally begin.