Why Is The Kansas City Airport So Far Away?

Aug 19, 2015

More than four out of five Kansas City area residents have to cross the Missouri river to get to Kansas City International Airport.  For many it’s a lengthy drive, one that begs the question “why is our airport so far?”  

Heading to the airport from his home in Independence super early one Monday morning, Tim Deveny muses about what can seem like a pointlessly long drive.

“I feel like this stretch of I-29 just goes on, and on, and on,” bemoans Deveny.

Frequent flyer Tim Deveny, of Independence, Missouri, says he's thought a lot about why Kansas City International Airport is so far from home for many Kansas City-area residents
Credit Frank Morris / KCUR

Deveny says that being a relative newcomer to the area and someone who flies a lot for his job running a Catholic volunteer service organization, he often wonders how KCI got to be where it is.

“It seems pretty far out from the city,” says Deveny. “I’m from St. Louis originally and Lambert Airport, which is St. Louis’ main airport, is fairly close to the downtown area.”

For almost 50 years, from the late 1920s to the early ‘70s, Kansas City’s airport was even handier. In fact it was a little too close.

The airport just across the river from downtown, which now serves mainly business jets and other small craft, was the municipal airport. As air travel took off, and planes got bigger, the industry outgrew the relatively small 700 acres surrounded on three sides by the Missouri River. 

The FAA said it was an accident waiting to happen because airplanes had to clear the tall downtown buildings just across the river, made all the taller for the fact that they sit on a bluff almost 200 feet above the runways.

Charles Lindbergh dedicated the airport in 1927. Now it’s named after another Charles, the former mayor of Kansas City who helped oversee the transfer of passenger flights to what’s now KCI — Charles B. Wheeler. 

“I cut the ribbon that opened the airport,” recalls Wheeler.

That was in 1972.

The city had already opened an industrial airport on the KCI site 18 years earlier. TWA had moved its overhaul base up there, after being flooded out of an airport in the Fairfax industrial district. Wheeler says it seemed like an opportunity to do something big.

“The plan was to copy Chicago’s road to aviation success,” says Wheeler.

Wheeler says that Kansas City wanted to compete with O’Hare Airport in Chicago, which was, and still is, the busiest airport in the world.  TWA envisioned a hub at KCI with non-stop, super-sonic flights to international destinations —“The Airport of the Future.”  Other cities had the same kind of vision in those days, and Anne Dunning, a professor at KU’s Urban Planning Department says they all started building airports out in the boondocks.

“Nineteen-seventies and on, you’re talking about way out there far flung,” says Dunning. “And, ‘60s, ‘70s, that is the era of KCI, and Dallas/Fort Worth, and Washington Dulles.”

Many other airports of this era don’t seem as isolated as KCI, and Dunning says that airports can attract development, but that it’s usually stuff connected to inter-city travel — hotels, car rentals, maybe restaurants.  She says cities don’t build airports to attract other types of development. 

“Top consideration usually is making sure they have no neighborhood complaints,” says Dunning. “Which means going as far away from development as possible.”

KCI sits on more than 10,000 acres. Mark VanLoh, Kansas City’s aviation director, says that as far as he’s concerned, it could be anywhere in the metro area, as long as it met the basic criteria.

“It’s got to be pretty flat. You don’t want anything in its way. You don’t want houses, schools and churches nearby because of the noise, and it’s located perfectly,” says VanLoh.

So, though you may disagree next time you’re driving to or from KCI, lots of professionals seem to agree that it’s right where it needs to be.

This look at the Missouri River is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Bordersand spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them.