The mayor’s surprise announcement this week that new terminal discussions would be put on hold was a welcome one. It was clear that despite millions of dollars paid to a litany of consultants and tens of thousands in free promotion via the news media, the public was not sold on the benefits of a new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
Last week, while the City Council was listening to the airlines contradict themselves during a final recommendation for a single terminal, the Progress KC PAC was polling 801 likely voters. Research was conducted April 25-28. The Council presentation was April 26 allowing the research to sample opinion before and after the news media promoted the single terminal talking points. Voters were not swayed. Only 39% said they would vote for a new terminal. Moreover, 84% said KCI is convenient as is and 82% said it provides adequate security as is. Wisely, the mayor and Progress KC pulled the plug on funding a futile election campaign.
So what’s next? Hopefully in our new-found timeframe we can get the answers to lingering questions as well as some new ones.
- Why did Southwest flip-flop, saying in 2013 that KCI as is was fine for their foreseeable future and this year saying it was inadequate and costing us flights even though they’ve recently added some?
- Why did American tell the Council that they could not grow in KCI even though they’ve announced several new flights, including an international non-stop recently?
- Airlines are adding flights and traffic is increasing, perhaps faster than projected. We’ve squeezed the airlines into two terminals but have a third available to expand back into on relatively short notice. What is the current availability of Terminal A? Has it been properly maintained as promised?
- Pat Klein was announced as the new Aviation Director replacing the controversial and at best “inconsistent” Mark VanLoh. Pat is a nice guy and a long-time city administrator but does not have an aviation background. He does have a background in getting projects advanced. Now that there is no longer an immediate project to advance, is Pat still the best long-term choice to head up the Aviation Department?
- Pete Fullerton, a 25 year EDC veteran, was put in charge of commercial development at KCI nearly a year and a half ago. With one of the largest land areas of any airport in the country, this tax-free development asset could provide significant funding for whatever terminal development/renovation we end up undertaking. I don’t recall seeing any recent lease announcements so an update here would be appreciated especially with Amazon launching air cargo service. Combined with Amazon’s new distribution facility in JoCo, KCI is perfect. (Would have been more perfect had the distribution center come to KCI.)
- A consortium of experienced local architects and engineers led by Crawford Architects prepared an alternative renovation plan to the proposed single terminal. The plan was dismissed by the airline consultant but the consortium prepared a detailed and documented rebuttal to the consultant’s criticisms. For reasons unknown, the Council Airport Committee refused to allow them to present their rebuttal. This alternative needs to be given fair, open and thorough consideration.
- Up until this week, “new concession revenue” was still being heralded as a key funding source of a new terminal. Yet to my knowledge, no one has bothered to ask the current concession contractor, HMSHost, what their projections would be. The Mayor’s 2013-14 Task Force would not bring them in to testify and we have documented that the current full-service, post-security concessions are far from crowded. Now we have time to collect this information.
Once the announcement was made that the project was on hold, the pro-single terminal voices immediately took to Twitter predicting reduced service from the airlines as well as lost business and conventions. This in spite of the fact that since being told that the current KCI could not accommodate new airlines, additional service, international flights and TSA Pre-Check, all of those things have come to pass. We’ve added at least two new carriers and their non-stop service in the last two years. Southwest, Delta, American and Frontier have all added flights including international service. TSA Pre-Check is readily available. As for losing conventions, I thought the new hotel was going to fix that. Conventions want direct flights. We already have an above average number for a city our size and below average airfares. And we have a new streetcar, championship sports and attractions, and incredible food. I’m tired of convention excuses.
Now if the addition of all this service means the current two terminals are stressed, I refer you back to the empty and waiting Terminal A referenced above and ask again why we wanted to replace the three terminals with a single terminal that would be smaller that what we have now. As a one airline executive told me, “We’ve never seen a city spend a billion dollars to downsize.”
It’s also worth noting that City Manager Troy Schulte, who’s been pretty quiet about KCI until now, was more vocal this week after the conversation was supposedly put on hold. He used terms like duct tape, chicken wire, $500 million in needed repairs and upgrades and de-icing issues. I’m not sure if he was channeling his inner Mark VanLoh or not but there is no de-icing issue as uncovered by Steve Vockrodt and the Pitch. Regardless, if there is deferred maintenance needing to be done, there is no longer a reason to defer it, starting with Terminal A. Deputy Aviation Director Phil Muncy told the Task Force in 2014 that the best time to renovate a terminal was when he could take it completely off-line. It’s about as off-line as it can get so any delay at this point may be indefensible.
As we all take a collective deep breath and look at KCI today and contemplate its future let’s remember a key point: This conversation did not start with the airlines coming to us asking for improvements. In fact, you may recall them complaining in 2013 about being left out of the discussion. It did not start with passengers complaining about a horrible experience. Quite the opposite in fact. 84% like it. It started with Mr. VanLoh’s arrival here in 2004 – the same year we completed a major renovation of all three terminals. This is not and never has been a customer-driven project – airlines or passengers. That leaves only egos and politics as drivers. Kansas City is better than that.