Update for Wichita Airport?

Jun. 29--TERMINAL ANXIETY

Jeff Wilson, who flies twice a month, doesn't see the need for Wichita to build a new airport terminal.

"I think this is fine," said Wilson, Koch Nitrogen Co. vice president for ammonia trading, while waiting for his bags Wednesday at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. "All I need is a place to come and get a ticket and go catch my flight."

But airport officials and others say the city must move ahead with plans to build a new terminal.

The existing terminal -- dedicated in 1954 -- is "functionally obsolete," said director of airports Victor White. "There's so many things wrong with it."

The Wichita City Council is poised to approve the first phase of the design work, according to interviews Wednesday with all of the council members.

Debate over a new terminal has reignited as preliminary cost estimates have escalated from $148 million to $184 million for an envisioned two-level terminal.

Another $27 million has been earmarked for a reserve fund to guard against unforeseen events that could further raise costs, a figure White calls a "worst-case scenario."

City Council members said they want firmer cost estimates, and the only way to get them is to approve the design team, have them draw the blueprints and make calculations based on the actual design. If costs are deemed too high, the design can be changed, White said.

But waiting to build will only increase costs, he said. The City Council agrees.

"The longer we wait, the more complex the problem becomes," said council member Bob Martz. "The longer we wait, the more expensive it will get."

The city must be careful, however, not to reduce the quality of a new terminal, advocates said.

"We're looking at an airport that will reflect 20 years from now," said council member Carl Brewer. "It's going to cost us."

Increasing costs

The question is whether a new terminal will cost so much it will lead to increases in airfares and other fees travelers pay to use the airport. Cost increases at Mid-Continent since 2004 already have council members asking questions.

"Why do we just keep tacking on dollar after dollar here?" council member Jim Skelton asked. "We're going to come to a point where it's not a feasible project.

"Maybe we don't need a Taj Mahal."

A new terminal will take two years to design and three years to build, White said. If plans move forward, the building would open in 2011.

A new terminal is inevitable, council member Paul Gray and several others said. Even if the city decides it's too expensive now, the designs created this year could be used as the base for plans years away.

"Once you have the plan made, you can pull the trigger on a plan at any time," Gray said. "Unless it sits on a shelf for 10 years, it's going to work."

All of the design work -- which includes everything from the basic blueprints to details as small as the doorknobs -- will cost an estimated $12.6 million, White said. But designers could perform initial blueprints and give a firmer cost for less than half that, he said.

A first-class terminal

A new terminal is important, some business leaders say.

"If you look at the most critical infrastructure portal in any community in a global economy, it's air service," said Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce president Bryan Derreberry.

First impressions are important for people coming to Wichita to do business, to relocate a business or to reside, he said.

The airport's advisory board supports building a new terminal. In June, board members voted 11-2 to recommend that the City Council hire the architect to start design work.

"We need to have a first-class terminal so that we draw from the whole area around here -- so we can really make the thing work," said advisory board member Jay Swanson.

A new terminal "should have been done, in my opinion, eight to 10 years ago," said advisory board member Dion Avello.

Remodeling the existing terminal would add two years to the project, disrupt airport activity and cost almost as much as building a new one.

There is some concern that fees to the airlines would rise if a new terminal was built, said airport advisory board member Charles Fletcher.

But airport officials have talked with the airlines throughout the process, he said, and so far, they've been happy with the prospect of a new terminal.

A new terminal would be more convenient for passengers, said Bryan Pettis, station manager for Atlantic Southeast Airlines in Wichita, which operates Delta Connection flights.

Now, he said, the walk from the ticket counter to the gate is "a pretty long distance."

'Waste of money'

Like Wilson, the business executive from Koch, not everyone sees a need for a new terminal.

"So far, I've not really seen a need for a new one," said Brian Fousel, a Thrifty Car Rental senior sales representative who was working the Thrifty counter Wednesday at the airport. A new one would be a "waste of money."

Thrifty has enough space at the current airport, he said.

Clint Bolte, a consultant to the printing industry, flies 250,000 miles a year and is in many airports around the country. He's in Wichita to do business this week.

"When I flew in yesterday (Tuesday), I thought it was a relatively modern airport, very clean, quite efficient," Bolte said. "I can't imagine what you can do to enhance the Wichita airport."

Randy Vautravers, president of Rand Graphics, agrees. Low fares are more important than a new terminal, he said.

"People don't drive to Kansas City and Oklahoma City because they want to," Vautravers said. "They're saving a few pennies."

Reach Brent D. Wistrom at 316-268-6228 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com [mailto:bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com].

MID-CONTINENT PASSENGERS

Total passengers at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport:

Year Passengers

2005 1,486,590

2004 1,498,749

2003 1,431,610

2002 1,337,270

2001 1,129,381

2000 1,227,083

Source: Wichita Mid-Continent Airport

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