After a Slump, Kansas City is Climbing

The airport has recovered from the turbulence of 9/11 and the loss of Vanguard.


Mar. 27--Stephen Gregory remembers the barren landscape that was Kansas City International Airport after the 2001 terrorist attacks and the shutdown of Vanguard Airlines less than a year later.

"I cried the day Vanguard closed," joked Gregory, a frequent traveler who works for TalentSecure, an Overland Park database design firm. "We lost a lot of nonstop service from an inexpensive airline."

Gregory and industry observers agree that the scene at KCI is vastly different these days. KCI has rebounded from the loss of service after Vanguard's demise and the airline industry's collapse after 9/11.

The airport handled more than 10.5 million passengers in 2006, an 8.6 percent jump from 2005 and KCI's busiest year since 2001. That upward trend has continued through the first two months of the year: Passenger traffic was up nearly 5 percent at KCI, while nationally domestic passenger traffic was up only 0.1 percent.

With more passengers come more flights. In January 2005, KCI had 200 departures daily on weekdays during peak activity. This month, the airport has 234 daily departures on its busiest days.

And there are more flights to come as the spring and summer travel season heats up. Midwest Airlines, which has replaced Vanguard as the alternative to Southwest Airlines, will add several flights through June, including a new destination.

ExpressJet Airlines, a company once owned by Continental Airlines, will have Kansas City on its nationwide schedule when it launches its independent air service Monday. Other carriers that recently announced that they are adding flights at KCI are AirTran Airways and American Eagle, the regional carrier of American Airlines.

"I think you guys in Kansas City have finally recovered from Vanguard's disappearance," said Terry Trippler, airline expert for MyVacationPassport.com. "I've always felt Kansas City was a good place to fly from in terms of airfares."

Trippler, airport officials and other observers point to several factors that have led to KCI's recent surge in activity:

--More airplanes, more seats. Many airlines are adding planes to their fleets and thus looking for new routes.

--The emergence of a "hometown" carrier. Even though Midwest is based in Milwaukee, it has established Kansas City as its second base of operations, offering flights to business and leisure destinations that Southwest has generally avoided.

--The "Southwest effect." Kansas City's busiest carrier has generated new air travelers by launching nonstop service to Dallas and Denver, two of the most popular destinations from Kansas City.

--The lack of a hub carrier. Kansas City was criticized through the years for not having a hub, but the lack of a dominant airline that can bully competitors has allowed low-cost and smaller airlines to flourish at KCI.

--Cheap, available space. Many of the biggest U.S. airports are congested and have little room for more flights. In addition to having the capacity for new service, KCI is relatively inexpensive for airlines as well as its customers.

Mark Van Loh, director of the Kansas City Aviation Department, emphasized the final point. "Airlines can offer a flight, and if it doesn't work out they can try something else, because it's not very costly," he said.

Van Loh also pointed out that momentum begets more momentum. While U.S. passenger traffic was flat in 2006, KCI's traffic was up sharply. The airport's passenger load factor for all flights was 75.6 percent in 2006, up from 71.7 percent in 2005. Despite little change in U.S. passenger traffic, most airlines reported profits due to having fewer seats available than earlier this decade and experiencing average fare increases of 15 percent to 20 percent from 2005. Fares at KCI also have risen, but the percentage increases have been in the single digits.

"People take notice of our numbers, so they take a closer look at what's going in Kansas City," he said. "It's like a snowball effect."

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