I am a proud son of Kansas City, MO. Although I have called South Florida home for the past 16 years, I spent my formative years as a Kansas City boy. I caught the AVGEEK bug from a young age, and I’ve been looking up to the sky any time I hear a plane fly overhead, never turning down a trip to the airport for as long as I can remember.
Kansas City International Airport (MCI or “KCI” to the locals) is a big part of my story. The first memories I can recall include what seem like movie scenes as I play them back in my head. Recalling the “glory days” and romance of airline travel in the 1980s, I can still smell the combination of cigarette smoke and burning Jet-A wafting through the air. One of my favorite memories: my dad & brothers would head up to the airport for lunch outings on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, it was one of our favorite traditions and no doubt gave Mom a well-deserved break from raising 3 boys. Back then MCI was a mix of 727s,737s MD-80s and DC-9s with an occasional rare L-1011 or 747, all so exciting to 3 youngsters and our dad, all fascinated by airliners. My Dad, like me, caught the AVGEEK bug early in life, and certainly passed it on to his sons. In the early days, we would have lunch at what was simply called a “Restaurant”, “Cocktail Lounge” or “Snack Bar”. I remember when Burger King opened at MCI in the early 90s, it was a big deal- how times have changed! Back in the 70s, 80s and even into the 90s, airports were not the commercial centers they are today- we showed up to the flight 30 minutes before departure and went on our merry way. We dressed up to fly, took loved ones to the airport and walked them all the way to the jetway as any airplane trip was a special occasion. In the horrific days following 9/11, I remember visiting the airport and being absolutely stunned to see the airport full of grounded planes that had diverted to MCI, planes from just about every airline in the country filled every single gate and the tarmac, such a haunting sight. Later in my college years, I spent a summer working as a baggage handler for Midwest Express Airlines (YX)- I still consider it my favorite job of all time. Memories of being out on the ramp pre-dawn at 4:30am preparing for the morning rush of departures and seeing the numerous YX DC-9 and MD-80 T-tails with a proud “ME” logo remain in my head. YX’s slogan was “The Best Care in the Air”, offering 2×2 leather business class seating, a hot meal + wine & champagne and famous baked on board chocolate chip cookies on every flight. YX operated a secondary hub at MCI in the early 2000s, with over 30 daily departures. The shortest flight into MCI was on a DC-9-10 from Omaha, and they managed to serve a hot breakfast snack- hard to believe this was a reality just 20 years ago, considering how in-flight service has changed. I could go on and on, MCI served as the launching point for so many incredible vacations with family, fond farewells for loved ones moving out of town, my first-ever trip abroad, and epic memories made with out-of-town friends being welcomed to Kansas City for the first time.
Out with the old…
The current airport terminal is a hot topic among Kansas Citians- it is a Love/Hate dynamic spanning 51 years. Count me amongst the haters. I love it in some ways still (mainly for the nostalgia), but honey, it’s time to move on! In my view, the current MCI has held the city back, it is not a true reflection of the city, provides a terrible first impression to visitors arriving and an even worse impression of passengers connecting through. A brand-new terminal at MCI is due to open February 28, 2023, and it cannot come a moment too soon.
History & Irony
MCI was dedicated by Vice-President Spiro Agnew on October 23, 1972 with much fanfare. There was incredible hope for the future of air travel, and the new “Mid-Continent International Airport”, where the curious “MCI” comes from, was a key fixture of this ambition. Kansas City-based TWA envisioned MCI as the focal point of a Supersonic Jet Age- with visions of Supersonic Jets and 747s converging from around the globe at this revolutionary hub in the center of the continent. One of the key features of MCI’s revolutionary design was a “drive to gate” layout, allowing for passengers to be dropped off right at their gate- with a walk from curbside to jetway as little as 75 feet, billed by airport promoters as “the world’s shortest walk for the often foot-weary air traveler”. It may be hard to even think of this- but there was little to no airport security at the time, passengers just needed to walk up, present their ticket and board their flight. The new airport was heralded as a true “game-changer”, with plenty of room to grow, and was thought to be destined for greatness that would help Kansas City grow and continue its legacy as a fixture in global aviation and as an international hub. The airport opened with 3 circular Terminals, A, B and C with plans to open a 4th “Terminal D” as forecasts predicted the airport would handle 8 million travelers by 1980.
Failure to launch
The fanfare and innovation quickly faded, and it did so in spectacular fashion. The front page of the Kansas City Star the very same day the airport opened featured two main stories: “Agnew Lauds new Airport” and “Plane Under Bomb Threat”. Almost immediately after opening, The FAA mandated that all passengers be screened by armed guards or by metal detector. The design of MCI was immediately outdated, with no separate central concourse and a narrow building structure, the only option was to enclose the previously open gate areas in a series of separate secure areas- a series of glass enclosures. This meant two things: there were now more security checkpoints than any other airport in the country and there were ZERO passenger amenities inside the gate holding areas. ZERO meaning not even a restroom or newsstand. All passenger amenities were outside of the secure area. This also meant that connecting passengers would need to exit the secure area and have to clear security once again. This story is one of the biggest fails in airport history- and I still find it incredibly ironic to this day.
A failed hub, again and again
Throughout the years, many airlines have tried to operate hubs and focus cities at MCI due to its central location- TWA, Eastern, Braniff, UsAir, Air Midwest, Vanguard Airlines and Midwest Express Airlines all had sizeable operations at MCI that were unsuccessful for many reasons. Southwest is the longest-running force at MCI, but is regarded by their frequent flyers and staff as the worst airport for connections in the Southwest network.
It was not until 2004 that the airport was able to put a band-aid on the design- expanding the hold areas to accommodate most of each individual airlines’ operation into one space, which also added restrooms and a few very basic food & beverage options within the secure area. This band-aid has been allowing the current MCI to limp through the realities of modern travel and provide some basic amenities for 19 years. For me, one of the best elements of this renovation was the addition of a gorgeous new blue terrazzo floor with intricate design inlays throughout each terminal- replacing antiquated parquet flooring. Some of these inlays have been salvaged for terminal A and will be on display in the new terminal’s terrazzo floors. It is time for change.
The new MCI
Opening February 28, 2023, the new $1.5B, 1 Million Sq Ft. Terminal at MCI is truly a gamechanger. The new facility is the largest public infrastructure project in the city’s history. The new terminal is located on the former site of Terminal A. Some of the best builders & tradespeople in the city have mobilized over the past 5 years to bring the project to light, with Union labor, minority & women-owned businesses being at the forefront. The terminal has embraced modern design, connecting the entire gate complex under one secure area. Passengers will enter an expansive check-in hall accented by colorful art from local artists before proceeding through a large security checkpoint that will lead to two concourses (A and B) in an H-Shaped complex connected by a moving walkway. The new Terminal Complex will house 39 gates and nearly 50 concessions that reflect the best of Kansas City restaurants and retail. The terminal will also feature an 11,000 Square Foot Delta Sky Club. Plans state that the existing B & C terminals will then close and will be torn down, except for the central parking garages that will remain. The space currently occupied by Terminal B will be available for future growth of the new terminal to accommodate an additional 10 gates.
How’s that for history? But alas, this is a blog about the airport experience and most importantly where to eat! Here’s what I’m most excited about:
City Market Food Hall
This will be an iconic fixture in the main amenity node of Concourse B, with signage modeled after the iconic City Market in Downtown Kansas City providing some familiarity and a sense of place. This venue will feature some local legends from the City Market- including Bo Lings Chinese, Taste of Brazil Restaurant & Food Truck and Pigwich. Taste of Brazil is one of the additions I’m most excited about- I worked with one of the owners, Marco Rabello, many years ago and have loved to see his success in building their City Market location that has brought the flavors of Brazil to KC.
Made of KC Food Hall
Bloom Baking Hall, a second Bo-Ling’s Chinese, The Hungry Batch Bowls & Wraps, Poio, Jay “Hootie” McShan’s Blues Bar all round out this food hall concept with a taste of KC.
Local Coffee Shops
Parisi Coffee, Messenger Coffee Company and City Market Coffee Roasters- Kansas City is a coffee town with some great local purveyors.
Made for KC Barbeque- featuring Black Magic
A city-wide contest was held to identify who will provide the food in this location, the winner of the competition is Black Magic, which will have the space for 1 year. The great concept of this venue is that the winner will change each year with a goal of providing the best of KC BBQ.
Soiree Steak & Seafood House
Owned and operated by Chef Anita Moore, known in Kansas City for her upscale Southern cuisine, the airport location will be an outpost of her popular location in the 18th & Vine historic district.
You know I’m no fan of chain restaurants in general, but this is an exception! Who can resist a gooey Cinnabon on the go when you pass that heavenly scent floating through the air?
A Kansas City Icon- Guys Snacks has been around since 1938and the source of a lot of jokes. I’m excited to see what they are able to do with a Guys Deli- where you can stop in and…wait for it…grab some Guys Nuts.
Brown & Loe
Upscale downtown modern dining comes to the new terminal- this will be an awesome taste of some local cuisine.
Delta Sky Club
Delta Airlines is investing in a 11,000 square foot Sky Club- which makes me think they have their eyes on growing MCI. The Sky Club will also feature an outdoor patio with incredible views of the tarmac and runways.
The new terminal will feature 39 all glass jetways, giving panoramic views of the tarmac and adding a sophisticated touch to the terminal’s aesthetic. The new terminal will also have the most jetways of this kind of any airport in the US.
Yes, the restrooms. The new terminal will feature 3 times as many toilet facilities as the current terminals, and will allow for privacy, ease of movement and even some high-tech touches. High tech? Think green/red lights indicating open bathroom stalls, a display at each restroom disclosing how many stalls are available and where the next closest restroom is, and all touch-free fixtures. There will also be an all-gender restroom in addition to traditional men’s women’s restrooms. The restrooms look pretty chic- with backlit green tiles & shiny black tiles providing contrast and a real sense of style.
What I am unsure of
Dunkin’ Donuts over Starbucks
One of the hot buttons I foresee is the lack of a Starbucks location in the new terminal. While I’m not a mega Starbucks fan, this is an ever-present and reliable staple at just about every airport and there are locations in the existing terminals at MCI. The new facility will feature 2 Dunkin’ Donuts locations- let’s see how this one pans out. Considering how many people are fiercely loyal to Starbucks, my prediction is this will be the biggest complaint.
My hopes for the future of MCI
Kansas City is a natural crossroads for travel across the continent. The current airport has held the city back in many ways. My hopes are that the city will see an increased number of existing frequencies, but also secure some desirable new routes, especially on the international front as MCI already has very robust service to most major markets in the US. Most realistic additions- London, Mexico City, Vancouver.
My wish list: Vail, Honolulu,Maui, Montreal, San Juan, Paris, Frankfurt, Los Cabos. I would love to see a legacy carrier upgrade Kansas City to a Focus City- in my mind, the most likely candidate for this is Delta Airlines, due to the fact that they are opening a large Sky Club and have a large existing customer base in Kansas City. This would also complement their existing network.
I am absolutely thrilled for my hometown to finally have the airport that they deserve, one that will open doors for even better travel, economic opportunities and an incredible sense of pride for the fine citizens of The City of Fountains.