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.