Downtown airport history offers perspective for KCI decision

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With a vote on the future of Kansas City International Airport just one week away, a former mayor said Kansas Citians could learn important lessons from a similar vote held in the city around 50 years ago.

The downtown airport, which is now known as the Charles B. Wheeler Airport, was dedicated by Charles Lindbergh in 1927.

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With the facility serving as a pillar for air travel in the metro and the headquarters for Trans World Airlines (TWA), Wheeler said it brought convenience for many travelers 

“It was very close to downtown and that was a big plus,” he explained. “It was a very comfortable place and drew a lot of people that came down to watch the planes go." 

However, over time, the need for a new airport grew in the city.

Airlines complained of short runways unable to fit planes that were becoming bigger at the time.

The airport’s location close to the skyline also brought safety concerns.

“It was a dangerous airport because you dropped down over those cliffs,” Wheeler said.

The need for a new airport led to a campaign in the 1960s across the metro.

Pamphlets and pictures now stored at the Central Library offer a glimpse back to the time when voters had to decide on the future of flying in Kansas City.

One packet, which was sent to residents who would be voting on the matter, featured pages of reasons why they should vote for the then-new KCI Airport 20 miles north of the downtown facility.

“There really are a lot of similarities to what was going on in the 1960s with this initiative and what's going on right now,” explained Missouri Valley Special Collections Manager Jeremy Drouin, who showed 41 Action News the historical pieces. “It's the same thing. In this case, they wanted a new larger airport with more amenities."

Examining the reasons to build a new KCI Airport 50 years ago showed that facilities can outgrow their benefits.

“What I find interesting about it is how quickly things get out of date,” Drouin said. “Things they’re promoting then, like the size of the airport and the amenities, are now the same things we want to improve upon."

Kansas City eventually overwhelmingly voted to build a new airport.

The current facility opened its doors in 1972, 45 years after the dedication of the downtown airport.

With next week’s vote coming 45 years after KCI’s opening, former mayor Charles Wheeler said voters could learn an important lesson from the vote decades ago.

“It isn't 'if we're going to need a new airport.' It's 'when we're going to need a new airport,'” he explained. “Kansas City is consistently progressive and wants to do a good job on public transportation." 

Decades after the vote, the downtown airport is now primarily used for corporate and recreational aviation activities.

The facility also serves as the headquarters for VML, a global advertising, and marketing firm.

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