Sorry to see the ‘convenient’ old KCI Airport terminals go? You really shouldn’t be | Opinion

Kansas City has a way of falling in love slowly. Think Bartle Hall’s Sky Stations, or the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s Shuttlecocks and Bloch Building expansion: Their bold, innovative designs drew widespread skepticism and even derision at first. But over time, public opinion evolved to embrace them as iconic civic emblems.

Not Kansas City International Airport’s horseshoe terminals. Those just got old. Their layout was a creative, streamlined idea in its day. The flaws inherent in the original concept have aged badly, though, revealing themselves as outdated and increasingly unworkable over time. The buildings themselves are ugly, too. Their muddy earth tones and scraggly wall textures give off a dingy 1970s aesthetic that isn’t cool today, if it ever was.

The single terminal set to open later this month is a long- and sorely-needed modernization that will finally bring KCI to where it should have been 20 years ago.

So why, then, do so many people seem to think we’re about to throw away one of Kansas City’s most precious gems?

“Best airport in America,” read one typical tweet a few years back. “Most convenient airport. Go fly out of Minneapolis, Atlanta, etc. regularly and then tell me KCI sucks.”

The old terminals do offer certain unique advantages. A cross section graphic in the 1972 dedication program touted a “75-ft. walk from curbside to jetway.” That boast is still sometimes true, but only in reverse.

Notice: no security barriers in the original artist’s renderings of the terminals.
Notice: no security barriers in the original artist’s renderings of the terminals.

If you’re flying in with no checked baggage, and a friend or family member is willing to wait in the cellphone lot for you to text as you taxi to the gate, then yes, you can conceivably get from your plane to your ride with a minimal number of footsteps.

That doesn’t work the other way around anymore. The existing terminals are a product of an era that barely ever existed. When they opened, flyers could practically waltz from the entryway to the gate agent’s podium. Those wide-open spaces didn’t last. The terminals were obsolete almost from the get-go.

Because decades before Sept. 11, 2001, changed air travel forever, KCI officials realized why nobody else had built an airport this way.

Restrooms, seating, restaurants separated

“Security requirements introduced 26 days after the terminals opened in 1972, and then enhanced following 9/11, meant that other basic conveniences in the space-constrained gate areas were impossible to deliver,” Justin Meyer, Kansas City’s deputy director of aviation, told us Friday. That includes “adequate seating, restrooms and food options.”

Not requiring passengers to go through one bottleneck was an appealing selling point for the spread-out design. But KCI’s multiple crescents of gates — broken up by ticket counters, restaurants and other airport infrastructure — require lots of duplication, airport managers soon realized. There had to be a way to keep people separated once they went through a security check. And that meant segregating every amenity between inspected and uninspected.

So if you’re hungry and cutting it close to make your flight, you can’t risk standing in line at one of the tiny number of places selling food in the concourses. And even if you get inside the gates with a few moments to spare, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to find a sandwich or protein shake worth buying inside from the few vendors there.

One of the original terminals’ biggest liabilities is the porous barrier between secured and unsecured areas. In November 2001, while the nation was still reeling from the terror attacks, flights were delayed and passengers had to be re-screened in Terminal A one morning after someone tossed an object over the wall between the gates and the concourse — a wall just over 8 feet high. Crews had started to install netting between the barriers and the ceiling to prevent this sort of incident, but hadn’t yet made it to that section.

Replacement walls were increased to 12 feet and redesigned to include bullet- and blast-proof glass. But, as eminent local architect Bob Berkebile pointed out in a 2017 guest commentary for The Star, the barriers still don’t meet federal guidelines. They leave room at the top for heating and cooling systems to control the climate on both sides. An airport worker told us last week that she witnessed a repeat of the 2001 security breach not long ago, as a man inside the new, higher walls lobbed a set of keys to a woman on the other side.

Long walks down concourses for baggage

And as for the idea that the new terminal will force people to lug their bags and kids much farther? A trip through today’s KCI doesn’t mean no walking required.

“I don’t want to sound rude, but anyone who thinks this is the best it can get must not fly very much,” said traveler Deb Rivera as she waited for luggage in Terminal B Friday afternoon. “In an airport this small, how come I can never figure out which baggage carousel I’m supposed to find my bags on? And do you know how far I had to walk once I got off my plane to get down here? I must have walked half the length of this whole hallway. I fly all the time, and I don’t know any other airport that’s so confusing once you get off your plane.”

It’s true: Kansas City International doesn’t look or feel like any other airport in America. But it also doesn’t work like the best do. We’re confident that once you have a few trips through the new terminal under your belt, you’ll realize just how much you were missing. What a concept: almost too many choices for where to get a meal, and no more waiting in line for the ladies’ room.

Those dark, cramped old terminals are soon going to look like remnants of a distant past — one when you didn’t watch the person ahead of you kick off his bedroom slippers and hike up the waistband of his pajama pants so they don’t fall down as he raises his hands for the body scanner.

No, not every new development in air travel is a net positive. But a sleeker, more efficient single terminal at KCI will surely be the upgrade we’ve been waiting on for too long.