Glimpses of the new Kansas City airport make visiting current terminals a chore

November 12, 2022 3:33 am
The concourse of the B terminal of Kansas City International Airport, with a closed convenience store.

The concourse of the B terminal of Kansas City International Airport, with a closed convenience store, connects travelers with their flights on Delta and Southwest airlines. (Eric Thomas)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

The cliché about the Kansas City airport used to go like this: People who live in Kansas City love it, while people from out of town hate it.

At this moment, it seems that the group of people who hate the outgoing airport is, well, everyone.

For years, Kansas Citians debated whether to replace the aging airport, mostly because of its dated concept: three pods of gates that effectively isolated each terminal. The new airport design, described exhaustively and breathlessly by bloggers, will organize gates and amenities logically. And it’s going to look nice, too.

To await the March 2023 opening of the new airport means the existing one is condemned to fester and suffer abuse in the meantime. Talk to anyone who has flown through the airport recently, and they describe the experience with pity and disgust, as though recounting a visit to a neglected elderly relative.

Kansas City has a dated and inconvenient airport
The first image of Kansas City for visitors can often be an airport that is dated and inconvenient. (Eric Thomas)

The terminal is not only dated but also packed with people. As I flew out today, I wove my rolling bag through boarding area after boarding area thronged with families and business travelers, searching for an open place to stand. The airport’s gate area has become too small, along with other flaws.

The restrooms deliver the ultimate indignity. Your trip to the bathroom often begins with a long line (especially for the women’s facilities) and ends with you begging for some ventilation. How, you wonder, can this many people be served by so few toilets or working water fountains?

Airport food typically provides the sensation of being robbed of your holiday bonus in exchange for a soggy ham-and-swiss sandwich. So, we should expect that Kansas City airport food, on the brink of old terminals’ closures, would remind us of, well, dismal airport food.

What’s incredible, however, is the lack of options. You can’t find  anywhere to stash your carry-on for 15 minutes and snag a Miller Light. The only thing more competitive than being at the front of the Southwest boarding group is grabbing a table at Pork and Pickle, the airport restaurant perched above the Southwest gates.

Self-serve cooler of drinks at Kansas City airport
The location of a previous food vendor has been replaced by a self-serve cooler of drinks in the concourse at Kansas City International Airport. (Eric Thomas)

While finding a seat for a meal has become a luxury, parking is required. And good luck.

Our family’s most exhausting encounter was a late-night arrival in Kansas City that left us jostling with hundreds of other people to catch a shuttle to economy parking. We waited — I am not exaggerating here — 90 minutes for a blue shuttle bus. And that shuttle bus gave up the privilege of loading into our car to wait 20 more minutes to pay for parking. Leaving the airport took longer than most flights.

It seems that other travelers have abandoned economy parking, paying for the parking garages nestled into the craw of each C-shaped terminal. The lack of spaces in those garages, especially in the B Terminal, have left me weaving around the garage, praying that I don’t miss my flight while I search for a spot. Of course, the rates for the more convenient garages rival your mortgage payment.

Compared to this Dante-esque haunted house, the new airport looks palatial. The city has been proudly and smartly parading tour groups through the new hall of aviation. Groups of executives, students and travel bloggers have visited, and their accounts make the old terminals seem even more decrepit.

Perhaps my favorite detail is that the new terminal will feature the best thing from the previous terminals: the flooring. The terrazzo flooring of the old terminals has been celebrated (who knew flooring could earn awards?) by industry groups and people like me. I remember when my children were young enough to require a stroller, how I would roll them over the smooth expanses of the tile, tracing the arching lines.

The kids and I would inspect the medallions that dot the floor. These artful mosaic images brought whimsy and character to a building that otherwise appeared to be a concrete blob, especially when experienced from the inside.

According to the airport commission, many of the medallions will be meticulously relocated to the new terrazzo flooring of the new terminal. Add to that the other planned public art. Saxophones twisted into the shape of birds (or perhaps planes) dangle overhead. Plus, sculptures with musical humor by George Rodriguez.

One of the iconic terrazzo flooring medallions decorates the B Terminal of the current Kansas City airport.
One of the iconic terrazzo flooring medallions decorates the B Terminal of the current Kansas City airport. Many of the medallions will be re-installed in the new terminal. (Eric Thomas)

Images and reviews of the new terminal show and describe so many upgrades from the old one that it feels almost unfair to consider them as the same type of building. The adjacent parking garage will feature more than 6,000 spaces in one place. Dropping off and picking up will be streamlined with two levels — a design concept shared by almost every contemporary airport.

Here’s a phrase I never anticipated writing journalistically: Behold the bathrooms! As detailed on the blog “The Points Guy,” by Zach Griff: “There are plenty of restrooms throughout the new terminal, which all feature a green/red light system to indicate if a stall is occupied. There’ll be a mix of all-gender and gender-specific facilities, and all stall doors open outward — a purposeful design choice on the airport’s part.”

The region’s travelers, it seems, will be pleasantly shocked by this new airport and the return of pleasure to the flying experience.

The nature of impatience is this: Once you are on the brink of something you have awaited for so long, you can’t imagine waiting even a minute more. Even for a project that is miraculously ahead of schedule — despite a pandemic and decimated global supply lines — we want it now.

Or at least before we fly again.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.