Southwest Representatives Urge Caution On Costly New KC Terminal

Jan. 15, 2014
New Kansas City airport terminal is unlikely to significantly increase non-stop flights or passenger demand, Southwest reps say

Jan. 14--Southwest Airline representatives predicted Tuesday that a new Kansas City airport terminal is unlikely to significantly increase non-stop flights or passenger demand.

And they cautioned against building something so expensive that it drives up costs and drives away airlines.

"Higher cost can lead to less service, not more," Southwest executive vice president Ron Ricks told the KCI Terminal Advisory Group, which is studying options for modernizing the airport, including renovating the three terminals or replacing them with a new terminal.

Ricks said he was speaking for the four major carriers at KCI -- Southwest, Delta, United and American/US Air -- as the citizens advisory group delves into how the airlines view plans for KCI's future.

Ricks told the group that the airline industry has finally emerged from more than a decade of turmoil and devastating cuts, and is stabilizing with four major carriers and some measure of profitability. Through all that upheaval, he said, KCI has retained a remarkably stable customer base and is well served to most major domestic and international destinations.

But he predicted that KCI will only see "incremental" passenger growth for the foreseeable future and that's not likely to change, with or without a new terminal.

He said Kansas City already has non-stop flights to about 50 domestic destinations, including coastal cities that lead to international destinations. He doubted a new terminal would help Kansas City expand its access to more non-stop domestic or international markets.

"The terminals do not generate or impact demand," he said, adding that passengers choose flights based on schedule and fare. He said airlines go where they can make money.

Kansas City's Aviation Department has said that Kansas City could afford to build a new terminal for about $1.2 billion, although aviation officials have also said they hope to build it at a lower cost. They have said the 40-year-old three-terminal configuration is outdated and inefficient in dealing with all the airline mergers and in terms of security, concessions, parking, baggage systems, mechanical systems and technology.

Kansas City International Airport currently has an overall cost per departing passenger of about $5, which is low compared to many other airports and makes it attractive for airlines.

Bob Montgomery, Southwest vice president of airport affairs, pointed out that several cities, including Sacramento and San Jose, have spent over $1 billion on new airport terminals in recent years. He said they are case studies of "what not to do," since their costs per passenger increased dramatically without increasing airport business.

KCI certainly could use roomier gate areas with better concessions and restrooms, Montgomery conceded, but he said there are creative ways of dealing with those shortcomings without hurting airline bottom lines or driving away airline business.

Montgomery said the airlines are seeking a collaborative relationship with the aviation department, and noted that cities where the airlines have been at the table have had the best results with airport improvement projects.

Task force co-chair Dave Fowler said he hopes Kansas City will eventually be known for that type of collaborative relationship in its next airport modernization project.

Task force Bob Berkebile agreed. But he also said there's a natural tension between airlines, which want to keep costs as low as possible, and the city's need to provide an airport that gives its customers the best possible experience. He said it's that type of balancing act that the task force hopes to promote.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to [email protected].

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