The effort to issue $1.25 billion in debt to tear down and rebuild Kansas City International Airport (MCI) is on hold, but it will be back eventually. As Americans take to the air for summer vacations, it’s worth considering all the things that make MCI such a great airport.
In fairness, my colleague Joe Miller recently wrote that there are some reasons why a city might rightfully consider building a new terminal. The cost of current maintenance may be more expensive than a modern replacement, or a new terminal may be needed to accommodate increased traffic. Neither of those apply to MCI. While our traffic is up moderately, no one is arguing that we need to build for increased capacity. In fact, the new terminal proposal from the Aviation Department would reduce the number of gates we have now.
No one is arguing that the costs of maintaining the current MCI are prohibitive, either. Supporters of a new terminal seem to have strictly cosmetic concerns.
As for doing what we want airports to do, MCI is serving admirably. Consider the recent developments.
- In 2014, MCI picked up service from Spirit Airlines, and Seaport Airlines added service. Southwest announced that service to Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. has been approved.
- In 2015, Spirit started offering direct nonstop flights to Los Angeles. Allegiant Airlines will be flying nonstop to Florida from MCI, and Southwest offers new direct service New York LaGuardia, and Orange County, California. American Airlines added nonstop flights from Kansas City to Miami.
- And in 2016, Frontier Airlines will add flights to Atlanta, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Southwest recently expanded service in the form of direct flights to San Antonio.
In January, the Star catalogued some of MCI’s gains, including that annual traffic has grown each year since 2012 with the terminal we have now. Supporters of a rebuild point to possible (but by no means certain) increases in traffic as a result of a new terminal. But as Miller concluded in 2014:
To sum it up, the airlines (and common sense) say that building an expensive new terminal will not increase demand for air travel. Quite the contrary, the higher costs to airlines and passengers may mean fewer flights. Even if we agree with business leaders that MCI requires more amenities, certainly there is a cheaper way of providing these than a $1.2 billion new terminal plan. The cost is so much greater than the supposed benefits that the plan looks more like a vanity project than a sound investment.
In short, Kansas City’s airport is doing well. It has won high marks for its convenience; we’re unlikely to suffer the long waits seen at other airports because MCI does not use the TSA for security. Importantly, airlines seem eager to come and expand their service (despite their claims to the contrary). It is unlikely that Kansas City could improve on this. In fact, in taking on mountains of debt we risk losing the competitive advantage that many of us now take for granted.