By Joe Sweeney
Do we need a new terminal design at KCI? Maybe—but make the case with numbers, please.
I’ve got airports—and airline customer service—on my mind, particularly after a recent trip to Los Angeles to shoot the front cover of this month’s edition. Over a beer sometime, I’ll tell you what it was like to spend a good part of a day with Gene Simmons, the co-founder of KISS, and his partners of the Rock and Brews franchise.
With a chance to see three major international airports within a couple days, the notion of passenger convenience resonates a lot more with me today than it did about a week ago, when the mayor’s KCI Terminal Advisory Group made its final recommendations on what to do with Kansas City International Airport.
Frankly, I’m puzzled by the vote from 19 of the panel’s members to support the entire demolition of the three-terminal design that was once the toast of U.S. commercial aviation, and replace them all with a new single-terminal design. These folks met dozens of times for nearly a year, and they may know a lot about what we need at KCI, but a three-fourths majority vote to proceed with a new single terminal—at a cost of $1.2 billion, (initial projections always go up)—seems hardly representative of the community sentiment I’ve heard over the past year.
I think it would be generous to new-terminal backers to suggest that public opinion was running closer to 50-50—my gut tells me that a lot more than half the people in this region prefer the convenience and ease of use at KCI. Would a new single-terminal assure us of the same type of convenience and still meet the needs of airline operations and security protocols in the post-9/11 age? I’m not sure—and neither are six of the mayor’s 24 advisory panel members, who said that even after a year’s worth of study, they still didn’t have enough information to make a recommendation on what to do with KCI.
My issue is, there hasn’t been a very good argument articulated for that kind of expense. Absent a compelling case for why KCI in its current configuration is hurting our prospects for regional growth, is this the best use of that level of funding right now?
That’s what gnaws at me, because I don’t hear the discussion of KCI upgrades coming in the context of other community needs. We’ve noted in this space the $2.5 billion needed for wastewater system improvements thanks to a federal consent decree over the next quarter-century. We’ve noted the inequitable tax burden imposed by the $102 million streetcar system—with multiples of that envisioned by those who are talking expansion before the first tracks are in for the starter route.
And yet here we are—again—being told we need to pony up, without a grand strategy outlined to tell us what the final bill for a first-class city is going to come to. I don’t know of a business that operates that way, at least any successful one, and the way affairs are being conducted in this city isn’t entirely conducive to a shared sense of public trust in government.
Beyond the financial aspects, I guess I’m most chagrined at the process, yet again. The one-sided nature of the airport panel vote hints of the same kind of front-loaded approach that produced the infamous Downtown streetcar vote. And the piecemeal nature of calls for major capital expenditures rolling out without a cohesive, strategic vision for them laid out is … troublesome.
KCI as a Hub
In the mid ’90s, Vanguard took flight as KC’s hometown airline and Ingram’s proudly accompanied each flight as the on-flight magazine for patrons to enjoy. Vanguard had some stiff competition back then and challenges of their own—eventually, they went away. In that era, however, there were many more airline carriers and Vanguard offered the closest thing that resembled a hub at KCI. Denver’s International Airport was and continues to be an ambitious project and they enjoy Frontier as their home-based airline. I’m increasingly unimpressed with Frontier, especially after they closed the gate right in front of us and stranded us in Denver the other day, but Frontier does serve an important role for Denver. And as the dominant tenant, the airline helps to substantiate the investment Denver made in building its new international airport.
Which brings me to a point—like Sprint Arena, is this city once again suggesting to spend hundreds of millions of tax payer dollars for a facility without a dominant or major tenant? One that helps to substantiate the investment? Because of airline consolidation, KC stands little chance of attracting a major airline to establish a hub here.
Where KCI stands to gain the most, in my opinion, is with facilities that most efficiently move large volumes of air cargo. Sadly, we move much more cargo than people and if we do design a new airport, I believe it needs to focus on our strengths. I’ve heard from some local industry professionals and government officials that KCI is an embarrassment. I have to tell you that I find KCI incredibly convenient—this is after I’ve taken planes, trains and automobiles to navigate Denver, LAX and many other allegedly superior airports. Perhaps KCI is antiquated, but I really wonder if demolishing all three terminals makes sense, and if a new airport wouldn’t come at the expense of other, really important priorities.
Again, I’m not saying a new KCI isn’t a good idea. I’m saying that a new KCI should compete on its own merits with other major community needs, of which there are many. What are the priorities? How would we pay for them? What, with some precision, can you tell us about the cost to homeowners? To businesses? Leadership, please.
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