Published March 29th, 2023 at 6:00 AM
Nearly one month has passed since the opening of the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport, and visitors still seem dazzled as they browse in shops and admire the art in the airy shopping nodes, with the aromas of barbecue and Brazilian dishes drifting from the many restaurants situated around the two concourses.
Kansas City’s new front door is generally receiving rave reviews from hometown and out-of-town visitors alike now that the $1.5 billion project is complete. After four years of construction, Kansas City has said goodbye to the outdated horseshoe terminals that were built in 1972.
The upgrade has been a big talking point. Residents and visitors have commented on the stark difference in user experience from the old terminals. While pickings were slim before, the new terminal features a total of 50 food, beverage and retail options, many of them extensions of iconic local businesses.
“The upgraded MCI does a lot more than check a few standard boxes,” reported Conde Nast Traveler, using the aviation code given to the airport when it was known as Mid-Continent International Airport. “It shows what an airport should look like beyond 2023.”
The new terminal is earning praise for its focus on inclusion, which can be found everywhere from the heights of the information and check-in counters, private rooms for breastfeeding parents, adult changing tables in some restrooms, and visual paging board for passengers who may have trouble hearing the announcements.
Since its Feb. 28 opening, the terminal has screened over 300,000 passengers. The Beacon is sharing up-to-date information about some questions that have popped up since the terminal came online.
“I love it. We just came from Reagan (International), and there is just no comparison whatsoever,” said Rita Ortolani, who had just flown home from Washington D.C.
She lives in Kansas City and joked that she’d book a flight just to come back to the terminal.
“The old terminal I haven’t been in for about 10 years, but it’s completely different,” she said. “In fact, this is probably the best terminal I’ve been in.”
On the whole, feedback has been positive, said Pat Klein, director of the Kansas City Aviation Department. There have been a few hiccups, such as a congested passenger pickup line and scuffing on the terrazzo floors, but he said most people have been excited.
“This is probably one of the first airports we’ve gone to where the family bathroom has been open. That means a lot when you have a bunch of kids,” Robynn Nichols said. She and her two children were visiting Kansas City for the first time from Washington, D.C.
In the first few weeks, the passenger pickup line has been congested, with some people complaining that it’s taking longer than before to pick up arriving passengers.
Klein said it’s an adjustment period, but now that folks are getting the hang of it, he said, the problem is clearing up.
Ideally, he suggests that those picking up should arrive first at the cellphone lot and wait there until their passengers have gotten their luggage from the baggage claim.
The cellphone lot is located at 680 Brasilia Ave., next to the Marriott hotel. It offers an hour of free parking, with bathrooms and vending machines.
“Not when they arrive and not when they’re at baggage claim, but once they’ve got their bag and they’re on the curb, they can tell you which column they’re on…then you can leave the cellphone lot. It’s like three minutes from the terminal,” Klein said. “It works really smoothly when it works that way.”
KCI’s new bathroom setup has been a hot topic. The new terminal includes all-gender restrooms in the restroom cores in both concourses. Each all-gender restroom features 16 stalls per side and floor-to-ceiling doors, with a common area for handwashing.
“The unique thing was the bathrooms,” said Sean Collins, a resident of Minnesota who flew into Kansas City for a conference.
Inclusion of a multiuser all-gender restroom came about with the advocacy of Kansas City Council’s LGBTQ Commission and the Mid-America LGBT Chamber of Commerce on behalf of transgender and nonbinary passengers.
For some, the restroom has been a source of controversy, but most passengers don’t mind using it.
“I did use the bathroom. I did pause going in there, but then I was starting to get it,” said Collins, who had never used an all-gender public bathroom before.
Klein said that blue buses usually arrive once every 15-20 minutes, and it’s about a five-minute ride from the lot to the terminal. During high-traffic periods, they increase the frequency of the buses.
So far, check-in has not been backed up, and if passengers have checked in beforehand on their phone, it’s a short walk to the security checkpoint from the airport entrance.
From there, the average wait time for security in the first few weeks has been just over four minutes.
Coming out of security, passengers will already be in Concourse A. It’s about a 10-minute walk to Concourse B from security.
Overall, the airport is recommending that passengers arrive an hour and a half to two hours before their plane departs.
For now, it seems baggage is arriving at the carousels shortly after passengers arrive.
The Beacon interviewed two passengers at the baggage claim, both of whom said their bags had arrived within a few minutes.
“It was here when I got here because we shopped a little bit,” Ortolani said.
It was the same for Nichols.
“We went to the bathroom and then we came here, and they were already on the conveyor belt,” Nichols said. “No wait. Unheard of!”
Klein said that passengers flying in through American Airlines into Concourse A may have to wait a few minutes, just because those gates are so close to the airport’s exit, but they haven’t had any complaints in the first few weeks.
The simulation room is located in Concourse A, near security, and it’s available by appointment. Appointments can be made on the KCI website.
The experience of flying on a plane can be claustrophobic or overstimulating for some people, so by trying out a simulated experience beforehand, passengers or families can figure out if it’s too overwhelming for them before they book a ticket.
The small room resembles the interior of a plane, using repurposed seats, overhead luggage bins and an emergency exit door. There are display screens behind the fake windows that simulate the movement of the plane and speakers that mimic the sounds of a plane.
There is also a “sensory room” for neurodivergent passengers, which includes fidget toys, tactile activities, floor mats and soft chairs. The sensory room is open at all times, while the simulation room is open by appointment only.
As Joe McBride, marketing and communications manager at the Kansas City Aviation Department, explained, the design of the horseshoe terminals was outdated almost from the day they opened.
“With the design of those three terminals it was very difficult as an airport operator,” he said.
“Early on we had to put that security wall down the middle. In 1972, when it opened, there was no security screening, then we had a front-page story about a new airport opening and a plane hijacked, and within months the federal government said you have to screen everybody and their bags.”
The inclusion of mandatory security checks in KCI’s pre-9/11 layout provided lots of difficulties for visitors, including limited concessions prior to getting through security, limited restroom availability, tight flows of foot traffic and more.
“If you have people here and there, how are you going to give them restaurants and restrooms and enough room for searching and all the amenities? We tried to duplicate those services but it was difficult to offer variety,” McBride said.
The parking garages at the old horseshoe terminals will continue to be used by airport employees, but the terminals themselves will be demolished.
In their place, the Aviation Department will lay concrete and use the space as a deicing area for planes in the cold season.
Before the terminals are torn down, Klein said, the Aviation Department will salvage the public art installations, including at least 20 of the mosaic medallions from the terrazzo floor of the old terminals. Because they were commissioned as public art, they cannot be placed for sale and will instead be repurposed.
Justin Meyer, the deputy director of aviation, tweeted on March 26 to expect an update from the municipal art commission in the coming weeks.
Passengers are already noticing an improvement from the old terminals.
Ann Ellen Brown, a KC resident flying to New York for a Kansas State basketball game, said that the new KCI is “so much more convenient” than the previous two. Brown and her daughter Amber cited the quick time between parking and checking their bags, the accessibility features and the City Market restaurants as reasons for the improved experience.
“And the decorations are beautiful,” she said.
The Mid-America Regional Council has issued a request for proposals to research where bus service to and from the airport is needed in the metro area. This could mean more bus lines from Kansas, the Northland, south Kansas City or eastern suburbs like Independence and Lee’s Summit.
There are no plans right now to extend the streetcar or a light-rail line to the new terminal. However, if Kansas City were to receive a grant or other funding for a light rail or a streetcar extension, there is space on the north side of the parking garage where it could be integrated.
“A lot of the bigger airports are doing that,” Klein said. “It’s just a matter of Kansas City deciding that’s important, coming up with a regional funding source and then getting it done.”
The airport is governed by Kansas City, Missouri, under the municipal government’s Aviation Department. The director of aviation reports to the city manager.
The Aviation Department is one of two city departments, along with KC Water, that fund themselves entirely, without receiving any money from the city’s general fund. This is called an “enterprise fund.”
As an enterprise fund, any revenue that comes from airline rents, passenger fees or airport concessions is designated exclusively for the airport. For the next 35 years, some of this revenue will go towards paying off the loan for the new terminal’s construction.
Because the Aviation Department is a subset of the municipal government, as opposed to a statewide agency or a federal compact like the transit agency, it does not report to voters in Kansas or suburbs like Independence or Parkville.
This article first appeared on The Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. Mili Mansaray is the housing and labor reporter and Josh Merchant is a local government reporter with The Beacon. The Beacon is a member of the KC Media Collective.