Hidden problems cause headaches for airlines at KCI

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A 41 Action News investigation uncovered major problems at the Kansas City International Airport that are costing airlines money and the city flights.

In fact, the problems have KCI officials so concerned that they are already conducting feasibility studies to bring a new single airport terminal to Kansas City ideally in the next five years.

HISTORY OF KCI

Then Vice President Spiro Agnew dedicated the Kansas City International Airport when it opened Nov. 11, 1972.

The city decided to abandon the downtown airport because the newer larger jets had trouble taking off from the smaller runway. There was no room to expand the runway at the downtown airport so city council set its sights on a section of land north of town with plenty of room to grow around it.

The Kansas City International Airport was designed to be traveler friendly. During the design phase, Trans World Airlines pushed the city council to adopt the "drive to your gate" design.

"Kansas City International was done at a time when TWA, which was the primary carrier, saw passenger convenience as paramount," said Hanan Kivett, an architect who participated in the design of KCI.

Kivett was an apprentice at his uncle's architecture firm, Kivett and Myers, when the firm was selected to design KCI. Kivett's experience with that project launched his career and he designed an airport with a similar "drive to your gate" design for Munich, Germany.

He said TWA wanted to be able to use an advertising slogan that read: "Just 100 steps from your car to your gate."

At that time, airlines wanted to operate entirely separate from each other for branding purposes.

"All the airlines wanted to have their own identity," said Kivett.

Architects designed a terminal that would keep each airline completely separate from each other. They separated each airline's gates and baggage areas by thick concrete. In essence, each airline would run its own airport.

The very day the airport opened, the front page of the Kansas City Star showed one of the first hijackings. The Star's article referred to the hijackers as "air pirates" who took the plane from Orlando to Cuba before being stopped by authorities in Havana.

These first threats of terrorism made the very concept KCI was built on obsolete. In December of 1972, the FAA began requiring passengers be screened before boarding planes The short walk between the curb at KCI and the gate is the same as the distance between a pitcher's mound and home plate. The design leaves little room for modern day security screenings.

However, it is still a concept people in Kansas City love.

"One of the beauties of being here is you can come right to security, go right to your gate ,and not come back through," said Prairie Village resident Diane Gallagher.

MODERN DAY INCONVENIENCES

Forty years after KCI was first built, it faces challenges. Bags and passengers need to be tightly screened and carriers often share flights. For airlines, KCI has become a tremendous inconvenience.

However, public opinion of the airport is very high, so Kansas City Aviation Director Mark VanLoh is constantly educating the public about KCI's challenges.

"We say ‘we love it, too' but we can't keep operating it the way it is with the inefficiencies for the airlines," said VanLoh.

At Terminal B, the line of business travelers backs up every morning around 5 a.m. Hundreds of passengers need screening, but there isn't enough room to add more security checkpoints.

Terminal B is also the only terminal that has the ability and equipment to handle larger planes. All of the larger airplanes land at that terminal which means more passengers come to Terminal B. That means parking also fills up faster.

Aviation Director Mark VanLoh said he often has people tell him to move flights to Terminal A or C. He said those two terminals simply aren't equipped to handle the passenger loads on larger aircraft.

"It's a matter of space and equipment," he said.

BAGGAGE SYSTEM CAUSES PROBLEMS

VanLoh added that travelers can see some problems like the challenge of needing security at every gate entry.

However, he said what is really restricting the airport is the baggage system below. The airport doesn't have a centralized baggage system that would allow carriers to quickly change baggage from one airline to another.

Each airline has its own separate baggage system and its own separate baggage screening. There also isn't a lot of space underneath the airport to sort and check baggage.

Most airports have one centralized baggage screening system that allows airlines to quickly screen and transfer baggage between aircraft. However, KCI has six separate systems: one for each airline.

The only way for baggage handlers to get luggage from one aircraft from another is to do it by hand. That takes time costing airlines in efficiency and money.

FLIGHTS LOST

VanLoh said some airlines have expressed interest in adding flights but there is no more

room at Terminal B for larger aircrafts. Some airlines want to avoid the hassle of routing passengers through KCI which is not conducive to layovers or for airlines trying to move baggage between flights.

For instance, last year Southwest wanted to add a direct flight from Kansas City to Washington D.C. The airline ended up adding that route to Saint Louis instead.

He said other airlines have decided to take their flights to more convenient airports that have less overhead.

"Just the cost to operate three terminals separately: it is hundreds of thousands of dollars for each terminal for extra security costs which they have to pay for. The airlines have to pay for everything. Taxpayers don't (pay for those costs)," said VanLoh, who added that airlines at KCI are paying for more than 500 security screeners because of the individual gate design.

That is more than Newark Airport which has far more passengers than KCI.

"We have been a hub for many, many airlines for 40 years but none of them have made it here because you can't move people, planes and baggage around very conveniently. And that's something we need to do," remarked VanLoh.

He said airlines have also approached him about adding more international flights. However, KCI only has one gate that can handle customs. Most international flights want to leave and return around the same times on the weekend so that makes it difficult to add additional international flights.

ENVIRONMENTAL WARNINGS

The ponds around KCI aren't exclusively for beauty. Those ponds also function to catch water runoff from the airport which can carry chemicals like those used to de-ice planes.

Kansas City International Airport has received several warning letters from both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

One warning letter from 2010 from the EPA shows storm water carrying "industrial chemicals" was not always making it into those retention ponds. The letter states the EPA found those chemicals running off into Todd Creek and urged the airport to come up with a solution.

The airport has routinely received letters from both agencies going back as far as 2008 about similar issues. However, airport leaders said it is a difficult problem to fix.

The airport has no designated area for planes to de-ice where the airport can also capture those chemicals. VanLoh said the only permanent way to solve that problem is to build a new centralized airport terminal.

NEW TERMINAL IN THE WORKS

Preliminary plans have already been drawn up to consolidate KCI's three terminals in to a single terminal. Airport officials hope they could move flights from Terminal A to Terminal C. They would then tear down Terminal A and construct a new single terminal in its place.

"Early designs of a new terminal look very fantastic," said VanLoh.

Artist renderings show it would look like a sideways letter H and have centralized security and baggage screening areas. The shape would allow the airport to expand to include more gates if needed in the future.

It would also give the airport the opportunity to incorporate emerging technology like using your smart phone to check in and track your baggage.

Airplanes would also have a specific self-contained area to de-ice allowing the airport to catch and recycle all of the chemicals used in that process.

Still, Van Loh hears from people daily who worry about what could be lost at KCI in terms of convenience.

"It's frightening to think what we have and what we can lose. So we have told the architects don't screw this up because we have a lot of customers here that love what we have right now," said VanLoh.

PAYING FOR THE NEW AIRPORT

The FAA has already funded a study that is currently underway to decide the feasibility of bringing a new terminal to Kansas City.

If that study gives the green light, the airport would pay for a new terminal using federal funds, and fees from aviation, users and tenants.

That means no local taxpayer money will be required.

City council has already approved two master plans which include a single terminal for KCI. As no local taxpayer money will be required, local voters will not have a say on a new terminal. However, city council must give a final OK to any contracts.

Kansas City councilman Ed Ford voted against the last master plan to make KCI a single terminal airport. However, he said he now sees the problems facing KCI and is on board with the new single terminal design.

"All you have to do is try to catch a flight at 6 a.m. at Terminal B and you'll know what I mean that it is not a convenient airport," said Ford.

He and Councilman Russ Johnson both told us they believe a new airport could bring more jobs to Kansas City.

First, constructing the new terminal could cost more than a billion dollars. Early estimates show that it would also employ around 1,800 workers for the two years it would take to construct.

In addition, Kansas City would position itself as

a place where airlines could bring more flights which would also employ more people. Finally, having more direct flights would make Kansas City more marketable to businesses looking to relocate to Kansas City metro area.

VanLoh hopes if the FAA study comes back positive, he could look to hire an architect in the next year. He is optimistic Kansas City could have a new single terminal within the next five years.

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