After a lengthy battle, the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport opened earlier this week. For years, proponents and opponents of the plan sparred, and now… absolutely none of that matters. The new terminal is here, and it’s going to be provide a better experience for just about everyone who uses it… except those who care about car-to-gate distance and nothing else.
The original Kansas City airport terminal opened in 1972 which was the absolutely worst possible time to design and build a new terminal. It was created in a time before security and really, before the hub-and-spoke system, when the convenience of getting from car to gate was all that mattered. When universal passenger screening started soon after thanks to a spate of hijackings, the design became instantly obsolete.
But before I get into all the problems, let’s just take a moment to appreciate the original design. It was a geometry teacher’s dream with 3 circular terminals (in red) arranged in a cloverleaf fashion. It was even more geometrically fun when the square parking garages (orange) were added in later years. The roads (yellow) were also circular.
This design was perfect for the Kansas City origin or destination traveler. You could drive right up to the terminal and get dropped off or picked up right where your gate would be. You just had to walk in, check your bag, and off you went.
The idea was that you’d spend so little time in the terminal that the terminal itself could be tiny. There’s no need for amenities if you won’t be spending any time there. But when security was introduced, that started to show the airport’s shortcomings.
With such a narrow terminal, putting security in was an afterthought that still tried to cater to the local traveler. There were many checkpoints throughout each terminal, so that travelers could still go into the airport near their gate. But there was no way to go between gates after security.
Many airlines tried to hub in Kansas City over the years, but all failed. This was more a commercial issue than anything else, but I imagine the difficulty of connecting at least played some part in that.
After 9/11, things got really bad. Now travelers had to arrive at the airport even earlier to go through extended security, and that meant they wanted amenities on the other side. It took creativity to even get the basic food and newsstand options set up, and the place was bursting at the seams.
Meanwhile, Southwest had wanted to keep growing its operation at Kansas City, but that required increasing numbers of connecting passengers. So what happened? They stapled on these so-called “gerbil tubes” on the airside of the terminals to allow passengers to connect between gates in different secure areas. It was an impressive effort, but it was obviously not sustainable as a long run solution.
The industry’s move toward upgauging was the final nail in the coffin. With more people on each airplane — especially with Southwest getting 175-seat airplanes versus its historical fleet of 143 seats or less — it just became an untenable situation with gate areas far too small for what they needed to hold.
Sure, DFW had a similar problem, but those concourses were wider and more functional. Still, the circular design was just not one that made sense any more, and whenever DFW builds Terminal F, it will go a different route as well. When Kansas City had to decide what to do, the airport wisely opted to scrap the whole thing and start over.
The first thing that had to be done was open up some space. One of the terminals was decommissioned, knocked out, and made the location for the new single terminal.
There are no circles in the new terminal, it’s all hard corners. But it is pretty remarkable to think that by trading the proximity to the curb, Kansas City could build the same number of gates (and more) in a much more compact space.
The new terminal has all the goodies that you’d expect to see in an airport. There’s even a Delta SkyClub with apparently a common-use lounge under negotiation. There’s barbecue and art and a bunch of gates with room for travelers to sit. It all sounds so basic, but in Kansas City, it just didn’t exist before.
The new terminal certainly lacks the uniqueness in design of the old airport, but it effectively eliminates all the problems that have plagued the old terminals since they opened. That’s what really matters.
This isn’t going to magically enable a mid-continent hub to work at the airport, but as long as the airport costs don’t skyrocket too much, then it will enable airlines to grow and add new service in a way that might have been tough in the old setup.
I watched a tour of the terminal before it opened. Among other things I was impressed that it has all gender restrooms, in addition to women’s and men’s restrooms. This is one of those things I’ve just started to see in Seattle over the past decade or so, so I’m happily surprised it’s at Kansas City.
This’ll also provide flex capacity in case one of the single gender restrooms gets overcrowded.
As long as the terminals have BBQ, the rest doesn’t matter.
It is great to see the US finally making meaningful investments in infrastructure, particularly around facilities that anchor how Americans travel. The new LaGuardia Airport doesn’t eliminate the airport’s challenging approaches, crowded airspace, and other operational constraints in the air, but it makes the best use of the physical space on the ground, in pleasant, airy, and well designed terminals. The new KCI is a huge improvement over an absurd design that was outdated the moment it was first drafted, partly at the request of TWA, that had hoped to turn Kansas City (MCI) into an intercontinental hub. The idea was ludicrous and the airport’s design was terrible.
Other improvements are happening or have been made in places like LAX, SFO, and beyond.
Air travel, in spite of its enormous contribution to climate change, isn’t likely to be replaced any time soon with anything resembling surface transportation, in the United States. The country’s geography and funding approach don’t allow for such projects.
MCI’s previous airport terminals were absolute dumps, for the reasons described in this post and then some.
No room, grey concrete that looked dirty even when clean, and so on, plus half-height (~12 or 15 foot?) glass walls between the secure sides & land sides of the airport that even an old lady could easily throw a weapon over. Using it as the set for a 1970s-era airport movie scene wouldn’t have required much more than removing the flat screens / technology and swapping out a few colors & logos on signs.
I’ve been in long-distance bus terminals in Bolivia were more comfortable to wait for an hour or two in than MCI’s old terminals were… Wish I were kidding.
What’s the story with “MCI” anyway? Who or what is commemorated? (Clearly its code should be “BBQ”.)
The code was an abbreviation for Mid-Continent International, but that’s an old name and even locals refer to it as “KCI”.
For some reason, locals and local media always refer to their airport by an abbreviation, rather than the airport code. It drives me nuts as someone in the industry. Orlando is not “OIA,” Tampa is not “TIA,” Denver is not “DIA,” and Kansas City is not “KCI.” Stop calling them that!!
In Colorado, a lot of people refer to DEN as DIA
The abbreviations (initialisms, whatever) are accurate though (AUS is Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, or ABIA, for example).
To be fair, there are a LOT of barbeque related airspace waypoints near MCI (see: https://opennav.com/navaid/US/MCI/KANSAS+CITY ), including BRSKT, BURND, COOKD, FAMUS, RIBBS, SLABB, SLOWE, & SMOKE… Plus the usual other smattering of waypoints named after celebrities and nearby professional & college sports teams/mascots.
Must have been really annoying to all those Sprint workers in Overland Park. My one and only trip to the area was in fact a visit to Sprint HQ, arriving at MCI. Glad I got to experience the weirdness of the airport. Glad I had to do it only once, though.
I’ve likewise flown into the old terminals once. In on pre-ULCC Frontier, out on United (well, GoJet). My thought was “well, this is interesting…and I don’t want to stick around here for long.”
What are the plans for the other two circular terminals?
They will be torn down
Gone before the end of the summer, although the parking garages will stay.
This video takes you behind the scenes at Kansas City International Airport. This is the tour taken by members of the Airport Terminal Advisory Group. The Group, composed of citizens from across the metro appointed by KCMO Mayor Sly James, is studying possible changes to the airport’s terminal configuration and will make a recommendation to the Mayor and City Council in Spring 2014. This tour educated members of the Advisory Group about the airport’s infrastructure, security and other operational issues.
I found this video after a layover at MCI where we elected to stay on the plane, instead of being in that crowded terminal.
Was last flight out to Chicago on Monday as the closed up C . Got the last beer ever poured in C concourse at about 330 as they closed up shop with literally hundreds of travelers standing around begging for a beverage or snack, but that’s been MCI for awhile. This was by far the WORST terminal in the US and it was not even close. NO amenities. Not even vending options. I might even look forward to my next trip into town now with the new DIGS. Good riddance!
Exactly. Previous terminals were dumps, and while I haven’t had a chance yet to try the new terminal, I’ve heard nothing but good reviews from family who have used it.
Kansas City is a great mid-sized city/metro area, with a lot to offer for a city of its size, from museums (WWI Museum & Airline History Museum are amazing; not many places you can walk onto a Super Connie or view a re-created shell crater in no-man’s land) to nightlife. Glad to see it’s finally getting a decent airport terminal.
Now that new terminals have opened at LaGuardia, Newark, and Kansas City, what is the worst airport in the US?
Personally I vote for my hometown airport, STL–especially the non-Southwest part of it. Completely defective traffic patterns; usorious parking fees; hostile employees; assorted leaks in the roof; inadequate seating with creative duct-tape upholstery. We’re #1!
As I was reading this I was wondering the same thing. A few came to mind: PHL (cramped, terrible layout), BUR (small hold rooms), and IAD (temporary terminal) are the worst that come to mind off the top of my head. I’m curious to hear other’s thoughts though.
Cleveland gets my vote
Good piece, and feels like there should be a mention of TWA here too. I don’t know the history terribly well, but I believe they were instrumental in developing that quickly-outdated design… then bailed on MCI for STL very quickly after security became a logistical problem.
Still, I think TWA’s vision circa 1970 of stepping out of your car in Kansas City and hopping directly on a TWA 747 to Europe was peak early jet-age (sadly) misguided vision. Finally putting that old terminal out to pasture is another nail in the coffin of that era :/
As a Kansas City resident, it’s wonderful to *finally* have a perfectly normal airport experience. Sure, the old terminals were great for departures if all of:
a) you weren’t checking bags,
b) your airline-specific security line wasn’t backed up, and
c) you timed your arrival such that boarding was starting right after making it through security
were true. For virtually all other use cases, it was horrible; I don’t know if there was a worse decently-sized airport in the country to be stuck in during flight delays or as a connecting passenger than was the case at the old MCI terminals.
(Also…Cranky, inquiring minds want to know – with Southwest’s LGB – MCI route starting next week, will you be visiting the new terminal anytime soon?)
Jesse – I’d like to come back to KC sometime, but nothing is planned for now.
Highly, HIGHLY recommend the Airline History Museum at the KC downtown airport (not MCI)… https://airlinehistory.org/ . Park near the tail of the old (engineless) TriStar. :-)
The TWA museum on the other side of the KC downtown airport is more meh, in my opinion, probably worth a visit but more airline memorabilia (think paper flight attendant outfits) than planes or anything else. Also expect to hear a lot of “We did it better before the merger/move” talk from the old TWA folks who volunteer there. ;-)
For non-aviation related museums, the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank of KC offers free tours (advance registration required, last I checked). Doesn’t take long (30-60 minutes would probably be plenty), but there aren’t many other good places to go if you want to see millions of dollars in cash in person (including $1 million in cash hanging on a wall) or to lift a gold brick, plus it has some good money educational materials for kids. WWI museum is superb as well and could easily be an all-day thing by itself if you’re into that.
come-on Cranky…get you set up with a tour of the old and new buildings….
It’s another airport that has a design based on ATL. ATL was really ahead of its time when it was built.
I know a lot of people like to hate on ATL, but for an airport of its size, the curb-to-gate times are pretty good, and I imagine that the average taxi times are as well, given the parallel runways on either side of the terminals. It’s also pretty easy for pax to navigate in a logic manner.
It’s not based on ATL.
When I was delivering trucks I used the old MCI a fair amount, especially when contracting with a company that was headquartered in North Kansas City, Missouri. I remember the area past security as being very crowded with not enough places to buy food and drink and not really enough washrooms. It was during that time that passageways were made so people who had connecting flights did not have to reclear security when changing gates. It is quite obvious that the old MCI was designed for an era where there were no security checkpoints as was DFW. I’d like to see the new MCI but don’t expect to have any occasion to anytime soon if at all.
Happy for Kansas City. Only flew out of the old terminals a handful of times and to me the most mind-boggling fact was that Southwest only had space for 2 baggage carousels for its entire operation. That was a huge mess (watched/waited as chaos ensued when some golf clubs got stuck coming up the belt from ground level last summer …. passengers climbing down the ramp trying to unclog the jam). There’s been a lot of talk about the glass jet bridges — we’ve had them down here in Wichita since our new terminal opened and they are so airy and such great views as you approach your aircraft. My only beef with MCI is its location; 30 minutes (or more) from most anywhere in Kansas City and not much out there other than a few hotels and off-site parking vendors … Denver-esque in that regard. Have grown to appreciate closer-in airports, especially those that connect to mass transit.