Reenergizing 'Downtown'

KANSAS CITY — When all is said and done, the Kansas City Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport will have undergone a $100 million facelift. It is a stark contrast to some other downtown airports — as in Chicago, where they tore it up overnight; or Cleveland, where every few years someone wants to emulate Chicago. Some $20 million has already been spent totally reconstructing the airfield’s primary runway. Now, the city’s aviation department is embarking on a major general aviation complex in an attempt to lure back private pilots who have fled to outlying relievers. Over time, the intent is for the city to accommodate the owners of smaller GA aircraft with modern T-hangars, their own terminal, and self-serve fueling, while leaving the vibrant business aviation segment to its sole fixed base operator, Executive Beechcraft.

This is an airport steeped in history. Once the city’s primary airfield, Downtown Airport in August marked its 80th anniversary. Charles Lindberg dedicated the airport in 1927, three months after his Atlantic Ocean crossing. And, the Executive Beechcraft FBO terminal is the site of the original TWA headquarters, frequently used by legendary aviator Howard Hughes.

Comments Mark VanLoh, director for the Kansas City Department of Aviation, “Kansas City International has one small FBO; I think we have one based airplane. There’s no general aviation there. In the future I’d like to see more.

“Downtown Airport had to be the place where general aviation thrived. I think it has been neglected for years; we chased away everybody. They didn’t build new hangars; of course, building T-hangars is a losing proposition from the day you put the shovel in the ground. So, our FBO didn’t want to do it.

“Space downtown became very tight. So, only the big guys hung around; the big players in town kept their corporate iron there.

“The little guy took off, and he went to the small outlying airports around Kansas City. He went there because he wanted to put his airplane inside at night during the winter. He didn’t go there for services, and that’s where we think we’re gonna get them back. Those airports don’t have 24-hour federal control towers; they don’t have crash-fire-rescue; they don’t have staff on duty 24 hours.

“We think when these hangars get up — and there will be over 100 of them — these airplanes are going to come back in droves. Especially when we put in the self-fueling operation and the airplane wash — things they really need.”

Michael Roper, 61, airport manager for Downtown Airport, credits the 47-year old VanLoh as being a catalyst, along with the support of a city that is undergoing its own economic revival.

Explains Roper, “The city is changing. Kansas City downtown is undergoing a renaissance, with approximately $4 billion in investment and redevelopment taking place. The city just opened a new 18,000-seat convention and sports arena, and is near completion of a new entertainment district downtown with hotels and restaurants coming in. All this development is drawing young professionals to move back into the city.

“We have been doing a lot of studies of the airport. We’ve been looking at current use, how things have changed over the years, the phenomenal growth of business aviation. Basically we’re trying to assess how the airport needs to change to be able to serve the needs of both business and leisure aviation.”

Regarding VanLoh, Roper says “you could not ask for more as far as leadership and a catalyst to get things moving now. He understands the importance of general aviation as well as commercial aviation, and this airport’s role as a reliever.

“We’re also very fortunate that we have a mayor, and a city manager from Denver, who are very interested that we’re keeping pace with development downtown. The city council visits regularly. Everyone with their finger on the airport is committed to continuance of this as a business airport.”

Executive Beechcraft pretty much operates the east side of the airfield. BBA Aviation, parent of the Signature Flight Support FBO chain, purchased the four FBOs of Executive Beechcraft earlier this year from the Meisinger family; it was founded in 1938 by Dan Meisinger, Sr.
Comments BBA Aviation head Bruce Van Allen, “It doesn’t fit the Signature model; it has its own pedigree. The brand equity was extremely valuable. Why would you screw with that brand?”