The View From a New Front Door

The jury is still out on our ROI, but the rebuilt KCI sure does make a good first impression.

By Dennis Boone

Full disclosure: I’m not the kind of passenger whom airlines look to for long-term revenue. Heck, I can’t even remember the last time I flew out of the old Kansas City International Airport’s three-ring configuration—it might have been as far back as 2011 on a family jaunt to Orlando.

So I’ve never been one to lash supporters of the new airport with the familiar complaint about how convenient KCI has always been compared to what other cities have to offer. Wasn’t my place, I figured. And as long as I wasn’t being asked to help fund the $1.5 billion project as a non-flier, it seemed appropriate to let the traveling public drive civic sentiment on that kind of capital outlay.

Nobody, then, was as surprised as I was to find myself heading into and out of the new airport not once, but three times in a span of five days last month. The first two were for a business publications conference in Detroit. Two days after returning, it was to send a starry-eyed teenager on her way to Nepal for one of those high school experiential sojourns that incorporate an aspect of service, like building schools or teaching introductory English. (How that’s done by someone who speaks not a lick of Nepalese is a mystery to me, but that might explain the hefty price tag for the “experience.”)

Annnywaaaay … the verdict is in: We have a winner. The folks who did KCI—Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate as lead developer, the partnership that included hometown Clarkson Construction, the city’s aviation department—they all smacked this one out of the park.

Hitting KCI before 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning for the initial trip, I wasn’t expecting anything near the crush of humanity overrunning the TSA checkpoints. Remarkably enough, those agents dispatched their duties with surprising efficiency, quickly sending people on the way to their gates. (Buy me a beer sometime, and I’ll tell you about clearing security when your wallet and all identification are 30 miles away, at home. It can, however, be done without loss of blood or sinew.)

My biggest concern over the pro-rebuild faction has always been what I saw as a misguided focus on “passenger experience.” I don’t go to the airport to dine or shop. I don’t know anyone who does. I do know the post-security restroom situation was abysmal before this. Even 12 years later, some memories bear mental scars.

I’d also cringed at the thought of capital outlays for art. By and large, I think the market ought to set the value proposition of public art. If it did, we wouldn’t see so much of it that is just … awful. Sure enough, some of the displays in the new terminal lived up to my disappointment in what passes for artistic talent these days. But some were truly eye-catching and very cool, such as Leo Villareal’s “Fountain” and Willie Cole’s “Ornithology.” 

The thing that impressed me most about this new design was that it allowed for drop-off and pick-up right at curbside, just as the old KCI did, and the parking garage was almost as close to the terminal as any of those in the previous configuration. In fact, for the afternoon flight that carried my daughter out of town, I wangled an open parking spot directly adjacent to the traffic lanes separating us from the terminal. In and out in less than 20 minutes, and that included a stop for bottled water and waiting for her to clear security.

A sample of one isn’t a good statistical measure for drawing deep insights, but I have to tell you: After seeing what Detroit has going for it—and it’s a fine airport—Kansas City has claimed its place in the major leagues. Is it enough of an advancement to compel Southwest Airlines—far and away the dominant player in this market—to bring more connecting flights here or add new routes? The leadership has hinted at both. We’ll see.

Further out will be the business-attraction aspects. I’ve never put much stock in claims that companies reliant on corporate travel were hesitant to locate operations here because of the shoddy predecessor terminals. I’ll look forward to the news releases of those recruiting successes in the email inbox, but I won’t be holding my breath.

Given the experience that is modern-day air travel on the plane itself, I’ll not weep if I never have to set foot on one again. It’s nice to know, though, that if I do, the convenience factor—as we’ve made part of our Kansas City history and as it exists now—will still differentiate travel into and out of town.

To all involved: Well done. 

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