(If this is your first visit, click here first. Then grab a cup of coffee.)
One of the first tasks that Mayor James’ KCI task force is going to undertake is called “Airport 101.” This will be where the task force hears from experts and learns how airports work and what needs to be considered when planning and operating them, etc.. In that spirit, this seems to be a good time to recap what we’ve learned here since this site launched a couple of months ago. So in no particular order, here we go:
This is not a liberal vs conservative issue. There are many well-intentioned people with differing perspectives who are passionate about this issue and their passion crosses over traditional political lines. This is a good thing.
The “build it and they will come” argument has been proven false for airports just like it has been proven false for downtown arenas. Indianapolis’ new billion dollar terminal is losing flights just like Kansas City – as are Sacramento’s new terminal and Raleigh-Durham’s. Airlines are businesses, not utilities and they go where they can make money. They look for the maximum amount of passengers for the lowest cost per seat. Period.
The idea of “the feds paying for this” is gone. The original blue-sky proposals were floated under the banner of “let’s get our share” and “it’s our turn” to get a new airport paid for with “federal funds.” But as the proposals evolved over the last couple of years we’ve heard more talk of less federal support even to the point of “being prepared” for zero federal dollars. Yet at least one council member still somehow justified her “Aye” vote in April by saying the feds were going to pay for it. That’s not going to happen. With the AIP fund being raided to pay air traffic controllers as part of the sequester shell game, the only help we’ll get from Uncle Sam will be the ongoing use of KCI by our best customer – Ft. Leavenworth. So we, the users of the airport – passengers and airlines (who can pass the cost back in higher fares) – will pick up the tab for whatever we decide to do.
“More dining options past security” is a lousy reason to build a 1.2 billion dollar terminal. For the same money we could give 24 million passengers a $50 steak certificate at Ruth’s Criss and likely attract a lot more traffic. Even better, let’s support local restauranteurs and hand all arriving guests a KC Originals dining certificate like one receives a lei in Honolulu. “Welcome to Kansas City, the city of fountains, easy airports and the best restaurants in America.”
Of course, one of the more common criticisms of KCI is the lack of dining options past security. This is seen by some as both an amenity and an income opportunity. But airport restaurants are only amenities and income generators if people use them. There are new restaurants already in the secure areas of Delta and Southwest. They are far from packed. My recent visit to the Royals-themed restaurant in the Delta area was as full as our beloved Royals’ win column. Mostly vacant seating, high prices and slow service. To be successful at an airport, a restaurant needs passengers with an hour or more to kill – aka a hub. KCI is not a hub (nor will it be or do we want to be – see below). People go there to quickly get on a flight and certainly don’t want to stop for a $15 hot dog on their way home or to a meeting. And while yes, early arriving passengers, flight delays and the occasional connecting flight can create some dining demand, as noted above these options already exist and as we’ve seen in the Delta and Southwest areas already, they can be expanded within existing facilities.
Speaking of hubs, KCI will not become a hub nor do we want to be. (And the proposed terminal could not handle a hub.) In addition to the points made in this article, airlines continue to consolidate rather than expand. They are no longer focused on dominating markets with lots of flights, they are focused on matching numbers of seats to market demand. This is referred to as “capacity discipline.” In business it is called profit and survival. In other words, the old hub strategy of “add flights and they will come” worked as well for the airlines as “build it and they will come” worked for cities with airports and arenas. If we want to attract more flights in addition to the 45 domestic and international non-stop cities we already have (didn’t know that did you?) then we need to find more people who want to fly there and make it less expensive for people and airlines to do so. Along these lines it was announced this week that Delta is pulling out of its Memphis hub. While the job and revenue losses there are unfortunate, look for airfares to come down in Memphis as Southwest and others compete on those routes as they did when American pulled their hub out of St. Louis.
In terms of revenue generation, it’s not restaurants or retail that generate the funds. Nor is it even landing fees. KCI is a parking garage with an airfield attached. Nearly half of airport revenue comes from parking. Thus the funding for any airport improvements would rely heavily on parking revenue and thus parking fees would likely increase dramatically. Since KCI does not control all of the parking options these increases could drive people to park elsewhere or use other options such as shuttles, etc. making increased parking revenue difficult.
By far the most common complaints about KCI center around issues in Terminal B. “Southwest can’t expand.” “The terminal garage is full during the week.” “One has to leave security and re-enter to make a connection.” “There are long lines at Southwest in the early mornings.” The Aviation Department created the first two problems and could fix them without building a new terminal. They have very quietly fixed the Southwest connection problem already. The early morning lines issue has nothing to do with the terminal but rather the fact that Southwest parks a 737 at every gate overnight with 10+ flights scheduled to depart before 8am. This represents 1500+ passengers trying to leave within two hours. This would not change with a new terminal. In fact, it would be worse as those passengers on other airlines would be merged together to share the fun.
Speaking of merging passengers, let’s talk about security. Does it cost more to have multiple security checkpoints? Yes. Does that mean the lines are generally much, much shorter? Yes. Do smaller crowds and shorter, more manageable lines mean better focus, attention and less fatigue from security agents? Yes. Do hundreds of passengers spread over three terminals and 16 checkpoints provide a less attractive target to a would-be terrorist than the same group all packed together? Yes. Am I willing to pay an extra dollar or two per ticket for all of the above? Yes. (Ironically, we will likely pay much more per ticket to build a new terminal and lose all of these benefits.)
The environment was cited as an issue with de-icing runoff running into the lakes. The last time I checked, de-icing takes place outside and has nothing to do with the terminal that the icy plane is parked at. We can fix the runoff issue without touching a terminal. How about moving the airplanes and not draining the de-icing fluid into the lake. Just a thought. As for making KCI environmentally friendly in other ways, one suggestion I read was waterless urinals as far as the eye could see. Apparently this official has not read about the long-term effects of those on plumbing. Finally, how “environmentally friendly” is the waste of a perfectly functional building, the energy use required for its destruction, landfill space for its disposal, energy use for the rebuild as well as the manufacture and consumption of all the materials needed and the commuting of the labor required to assemble. And after all of that you have one terminal with 37 gates instead of three terminals with 90 gates and you are projected to save a whopping 15% annually. How about changing out a few lightbulbs instead?
It’s said that KCI is a catalyst for economic growth. Agreed. And it has been for 40 years and nothing we do to the terminal now is going to improve that. But we might hurt it. As noted elsewhere, a new terminal will not improve air service but will likely increase the costs. It has been opined that increased costs at KCI along with the trend toward more regional jets could lead to the movement of commercial air service to Johnson County’s New Century Air Center. Hardly a benefit to KCMO or the area around KCI especially with big payments on a new terminal. The area around KCI does not need a new terminal for development, it needs sewers which incredibly are only now, 40 years later, being added to the system. Give them the sewers they should have had 40 years ago and watch them grow.
It’s said that KCI is “the front-door to the city.” Agreed. And most guests love the incredible and very unique speed and convenience. Kansas City is not New York. It is not Chicago and thankfully it is not St. Louis. Yet we continually ignore the great things that make us special out of a perception that we need to be more like them. I disagree. Unlike them we are a friendly, laid-back, easy and unique city. KCI today, is a reflection of who we are. Easy, friendly, convenient and unique. But let’s not forget that just like a house, the front door of a city is still only the first impression. A visitor’s final impression of our city is the result of what happens between the visits to KCI.
So there is a quick recap of what has been researched and discussed during these past few weeks. Thanks for spending time here today and for caring enough to become informed. And if this is your first visit, welcome to the conversation!