Kansas City has an effective and efficient airport. There is no reason why Kansas City cannot continue to meet the needs of modern travelers while honoring our past architectural innovation, maintaining the convenience we have come to cherish, and keeping costs down. Many of the complaints that people have are largely cosmetic: (lighting, USB chargers, bathrooms) and could be addressed by repairs and upgrades rather than a complete rebuild. Yet a focus on these less-expensive options is absent from the current debate. Why?
Could the airport just be a legacy project? Two years ago, then–Aviation Department Director Mark VanLoh made it seem that way when he told the Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce, “You don't have [all the information] yet. We don't even have it yet. I know what I want because I want a new airport.” He just wanted it.
VanLoh is gone, but the strange enthusiasm for a single terminal continues. The new plan is just as over-the-top as the old one. The justifications for the spending come and go—claims of EPA mandates, TSA concerns, and airlines’ refusal to expand services—but the project itself remains the same: a $1.2-billion single terminal that is actually a downsizing of what we have now.
What is new in this round of the discussion is the financing and no-bid contracting. But regardless of who finances and builds the airport, the risk to Kansas City comes from the possibility of increased fees to airlines and passengers. Right now, Kansas City’s airport is very cheap for airlines, and travelers benefit with lots of flights from here. Increase the costs to airlines, and we risk losing that competitive advantage. Other airports have suffered after building new terminals for just that reason (Consider Cincinnati, Sacramento, or San Jose.).
The good news is that the city is no longer claiming that the airlines agreed to finance the project. This was never the case, despite incorrect claims from the Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Business Journal. In truth, the airlines merely agreed to pay higher rent for a new terminal while reserving their right to renegotiate once the terminal is built. They did not issue or back any debt; they accepted no risk.
Proponents of a new terminal are fond of telling us that the new terminal idea is not a Taj Mahal. In fact, they’ve been using that curious term over and over again for years (see the Google search here). The Taj Mahal, of course, is a 400-year-old elaborate mausoleum in India built to house an emperor’s wife. Such determination to settle for nothing less than a new terminal, however, combined with the candor of Mark VanLoh and the out-of-hand dismissal of cheaper alternatives, suggests that this is exactly what the new terminal is: a modern monument to political ego—not what is best for Kansas City.