Kansas City Star Calls For New MCI Plan, Airport Leadership
On Wednesday, the Kansas City Star called for a complete re-think of the $1.2 billion new terminal plan at Kansas City International Airport (MCI). The article even suggested replacing Mark VanLoh, the current director of the Kansas City Aviation Department (KCAD), stating that he “does not have the public credibility to lead on this extremely crucial project.” While we could not agree more, it is important to point out how the Aviation Department’s policy decisions have tarnished its reputation. In truth, KCAD has lost public credibility because it produced self-serving cost estimates, did not seek input from airport users or the airlines, and failed to offer alternatives to its preferred plan.
As the article rightly points out, the aviation director initially supported an even more expensive South Terminal Plan. That approach lost favor with KCAD because the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) would not build the required highway alterations. When selecting a new design, KCAD gave the public three options: the South Terminal Plan (which it already knew it could not do), the current design, and a mirrored option of the current design. So much for alternatives. Even today, after months of Airport Advisory Group meetings, the Aviation Department has yet to create serious renovation alternatives to its desired plan.
The Star article does not point out how the department has repeatedly contradicted itself about cost estimates and construction timelines. First, the airport was going to cost a minimum of $1.2 billion, then it was $900 million, or $965 million. MCI repair costs are shown as less than $200 million in a bond report, but then KCAD claimed the amount is $600 million or even $700 million. The new terminal planning documents call for the new terminal to open by 2019, but the aviation director then claimed that construction will not happen until 2020. At what point should the public conclude that the Aviation Department will say whatever number they think will get a new terminal?
Although the Star article downplays it, the opposition of the airlines has done the most damage to KCAD’s credibility. Before their testimony, the Aviation Department said that critics were wrong: wrong that the debt could harm the airport financially, wrong about how much money a new terminal could generate, wrong that the airport could continue in its current form, even wrong about the convenience of MCI. However, since Southwest representatives essentially vindicated the critics and warned against the risks of the new terminal plan, KCAD’s position has become untenable.
Most residents know that the airlines understand the aviation industry and that if they do not support the new terminal, it is probably a bad idea. What most residents probably do not know is that the ability of MCI to finance the $1.2 billion terminal plan depends on the airlines signing a new contract that makes them responsible for paying the terminal’s immense debt. If the terminal is built and the airlines refuse to sign, then MCI will be in Sacramento International Airport’s current position, scrambling to cut costs and find new revenue sources as its debt payments mount. It seems impossible that KCAD devised a new terminal plan and took that plan public without ensuring that its tenets/source of financing actually wanted it. Yet that is what happened.
It is good to see the Star arguing for change in KCAD’s performance and a new plan for MCI. Whether or not the aviation director is replaced, Kansas City would be well served by an open discussion about the future of Kansas City International Airport.