KCI hopes for an Improved 2006

Dec. 18--"I'm disappointed by the numbers. But this is a cyclical business, and I believe that cycle will rise again."

Tom McKenna, Kansas City Aviation Department

When more than 9.7 million people passed through Kansas City International Airport last year, officials were hopeful that passenger numbers would return to pre-9/11 levels in 2005.

They didn't.

Blame it on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, along with the stock market. At least one expert says that hardships imposed by the storms and the financial sector mean that the airport is unlikely to top 10 million passengers in 2005, something it did every year from 1996 to 2001.

Through October, 8.1 million passengers had used KCI this year, according to the Kansas City Aviation Department. The monthly numbers have been down slightly the past five months.

Southwest Airlines, the busiest carrier at KCI, recently added some nonstop flights to Dallas' Love Field. But they come too late to boost the passenger numbers past that magic number of 10 million.

Instead, projections are for 9.7 million again.

"I would describe these numbers as basically flat," said Tom McKenna, the Kansas City Aviation Department's marketing director. "I'm disappointed by the numbers. But this is a cyclical business, and I believe that cycle will rise again."

Until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, KCI was on track to easily break the record of 11.9 million passengers set in 2000.

Instead, the figures plunged in 2002 -- nearly a 15 percent drop. And the slide continued in 2003, largely because of the previous year's demise of Vanguard Airlines.

In 2004, the numbers rose 3.9 percent, the first annual increase since the terrorist attacks.

McKenna said the hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast states might have contributed to the flat numbers because several airports, including the one in New Orleans, had to close temporarily.

"And the stock market has been flat all year, too," he said.

To date, the number of people who have boarded flights at KCI in 2005, an important statistic because of user fees collected from those boardings, is down 1.1 percent from last year.

Nationwide, domestic passenger boardings are up 3 percent through October, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Air Transport Association.

Nationwide, overall air passenger traffic is up about 5.3 percent, said Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, a Denver-based aviation consulting firm.

Still, the flat passenger numbers at KCI aren't a negative reflection on the airport, he said.

"Just because there is not enough foot traffic to wear out the terrazzo flooring at KCI is no reason to think it is not a successful airport," Boyd said.

"The measure of success for an airport is whether it provides service to places that people want to go to," he said. "And KCI does. It provides nonstop service to all of the top (domestic) destinations."

A consequence of KCI passenger traffic not reaching pre-9/11 levels is the hardship it has created on some businesses in the terminals.

For example, Paradies Shops, which operates the news, gift and retail stores at the airport, has closed two shops in Terminal A and another in Terminal B because of a lack of passenger traffic.

Last month, the Kansas City Council agreed to lower Paradies' minimum annual guaranteed rent from $1.9 million to $1.7 million.

The $1.9 million figure was based on pre-9/11 numbers, officials said.

KCI spokesman Joe McBride said the flat passenger numbers and some airlines moving to different gates have contributed to lower-than-expected revenue for some shops.

"That's the Catch-22 of KCI. The decentralized terminal system is convenient to passengers, but finding a strategic location for the shops and concession areas is a challenge," McBride said.

Pete Fullerton, executive director of the Platte County Economic Development Council, predicted that 2006 will be a better year at KCI, in large part because of the new nonstop Southwest flights to Dallas.

That became possible after President Bush signed a transportation bill a few weeks ago that made Missouri the ninth state where airlines can fly directly to and from Love Field.

Direct flights between Love Field and airports in most of Texas' nonbordering states are restricted by the Wright Amendment, which Congress passed in 1979.

American Airlines plans to offer three flights daily between Love Field and KCI, beginning March 2.

"We have an airline industry that is challenged right now," Fullerton said. "But tradition shows that when Southwest comes into a market and puts up its low-fare structure, the number of flights go up."


To reach Mike Rice, call (816) 234-5903 or send e-mail to mrice@kcstar.com .