After years of debate, Kansas City, Missouri voters will decide whether they want a new, single-terminal at Kansas City International Airport on Tuesday.
City leaders promise the billion dollar project would be paid for using airport revenue, not taxes.
But the fight over KCI really boils down to one word — convenience.
It's a favorite among the many leisure travelers in the Kansas City area, who love the horseshoe design.
But for a lot of business travelers and airlines, the current design is one of the airport's biggest weaknesses.
For occasional travelers, KCI is a breeze
If you’re leaving for vacation, KCI can be really convenient. You don’t have to worry about getting to the airport hours before a flight — arrive half an hour early, check bags, breeze through security and away you go.
Audrey Preston was dropping her mother off at the airport on Monday.
“We love the Kansas City airport. We like how its has all the different terminals and how easy it is to park and the circle parking — being able to walk to the terminal. And that it has a small, country feel,” Preston says.
The airport's unassuming size is something many Kansas Citians love about it.
At 7 a.m. on a Monday, things were pretty calm. There were only about two or three people waiting in line.
But two hours earlier was a different story.
For business travelers, convenience is hit or miss
Weekday mornings between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. are peak times for business travelers. And things can get especially hairy if security doesn’t have express lanes for preferred travelers open.
“So it can get a little crazy when you show up and the line's outside the door. So it's not consistent between gate to gate and airlines," says Mary Dixon. Dixon travels for work almost every day.
Even if you can get from your car to the gate in under an hour, a lack of direct flights means you may not be getting to your destination any faster. Steve McDowell, with local architecture firm BNIM, was also flying out of KCI Monday morning.
“The other side of convenience is that if you travel for business like our office does and like a lot of companies do... often there's an extra flight that you have to take that's a very big inconvenience,” McDowell says.
KCI has 51 direct flights, and only one nonstop international flight — to Toronto. By comparison, St. Louis Lambert International Airport has 66 nonstop flights, including three international destinations.
“If you go to Europe, which we do a lot, you have to add another day onto the trip to make up for those extra flights. So if you lose a day of your kids soccer game or just personal time, that's a huge inconvenience,” McDowell says.
A new airport terminal will not guarantee a direct flight to London. The airlines can’t even guarantee more domestic flights.
Kansas City councilwoman Jolie Justus, who leads the city’s airport committee, says the airlines can guarantee one thing.
“They will guarantee that they cannot expand and give us more flights if we do not change things,” Justus says.
Justus is backed up on that point by Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, who told Kansas City business leaders last week that leaving the airport as is prohibits growth.
The current airport restricts airlines and connecting passengers
For the airliners flying in and out of KCI, the current set up is confining.
Kansas City deputy aviation director Justin Meyer says several airlines want to do more business here.
“American Airlines said that they want to fly larger aircraft in Kansas City than the facility allows them — specifically, we can’t get enough people through these small security checkpoints at a rapid enough rate to be able to fly the large aircraft that we want to on some of those peak flights,” Meyers says.
Without a doubt, the least satisfied people at the airport are those stuck behind security between flights.
Right now, that’s only about 4% of KCI’s total passengers.
Meyer says like other connecting passengers, when he’s waiting for a flight, he’s looking for a few specific things.
“The first thing I'm looking for is a bathroom near my gate, the second thing I'm looking for is [somewhere] to walk around, find something to eat, and then I'm looking for a comfortable place to sit down while I wait for my flight," Meyer says.
"When we do an honest assessment of ourselves in the secure area, in the gate area, we don't deliver that.”
That’s because most of the bathrooms, bars and restaurants at KCI are outside security checkpoints. That would change with a new terminal.
City officials say those other conveniences wouldn’t be lost either. They promise more parking close to the terminal and easy drop off and pick up areas.
And they say all those upgrades will be paid for through user fees like tickets, parking and concessions — not tax dollars or money from the city’s general fund.
Next week's election will affect millions of travelers — but only a handful will get to decide
Tuesday’s vote will affect people on both sides of the state line.
But the decision is in the hands of around 225,,000 registered voters in Kansas City, Missouri.
The last election in Kansas City, back in August, had around a ten percent turnout.
Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. She's on Twitter @larodrig.