by Lucas Wetzel
There’s probably no more controversial issue in Kansas City right now than whether to tear down the existing three-terminal airport and replace it with an expensive, modernized, single-terminal facility. Newspaper columnists and public officials plead the necessity of a new airport, while groups such as the indignant “Save KCI” (over 59 Twitter followers at last count) demand the current layout be left alone.
I’ve always found the current airport remarkably convenient, but almost comically inefficient in its use of space. The last time I flew out of Terminal A, the only sign of life I saw in a 10-gate stretch was a pigeon. While I’m not quite as indifferent as my friend Red, who says all airports are just horribly overgrown bus stops, I’m not especially interested in debating whether a new airport is a good idea.
What does interest me about Kansas City International Airport is its atmosphere — or lack thereof. With some amount of renovation inevitable, I wanted to explore the airport’s vibe and personality before any big changes took place. The best way to do this, I decided, would be to try something few sane individuals have ever attempted: To go to the airport — not to catch a flight or pick someone up — but simply to hang out.
To accompany me, I recruited Jeff Akin, a good friend, inveterate smartass, and the 2012 Pitch Reader’s Choice winner for best food blogger. Our rules were simple: We would stroll the entire length of the airport, recording our observations and musings along the way. And naturally, we would consume at least one alcoholic beverage per terminal.
Waiting for Devin
We made our foray to KCI on a cold Tuesday afternoon in late March. A mix of rain and sleet pounded the windshield on the familiar drive north on 1-29. Despite having been to the airport a combined 100+ times, neither of us could recall having any strong feelings about the place. I had always assumed there was more to see in the other terminals than my hurried visits allowed, but had never bothered to find out if that was true. Today I would.
Upon entering terminal A via the underground parking garage, the first thing we noticed was that it smelled like crab rangoon — odd considering there are no Chinese restaurants in the building. Smooth jazz played overhead, and the first three rows of benches we saw were completely empty. It felt more like an abandoned shopping mall than an operational airport. “This place is dead,” Jeff said.
But not entirely. After a flight let out a few gates ahead, Jeff spotted a vice president at his company walking toward the baggage claim, forcing us to lag behind at a slow pace. We’d both skipped out of work early and didn’t feel like explaining that we’d done so in order to go on a three-terminal pub crawl. To be safe, we invented a story about how we were there to surprise our good (but non-existent) friend Devin, who was flying in from Denver, though we weren’t sure exactly when.
We decided to wait for Devin at The Fountains of Seville, basically your average airport bar except for a little gated patio under a small red-tile awning. It was a lot like dining outside at a swank restaurant on the Country Club Plaza, with the added ambiance of giant headshots of Chris Matthews and Maria Bartiromo staring at us from the nearby CNBC newsstand.
Watching various females walk by, I thought about all the times I had waited next to a pretty girl in line to board a plane, visualizing the whole time how we might wind up talking in line, sitting next to each other on the flight, and subsequently falling in love and starting a new life together in whichever city or country that plane was headed. Despite the improbably tiny window in which these scenarios could have taken place, I always felt a profound sense of disappointment when they didn’t.
“Do you feel like an encounter at the airport carries more weight than in the outside world?” I asked Jeff.
“I’d venture to say that girls are hotter in the airport,” he said. “There’s something about this world. There’s so much movement. Anything is possible.”
“You could hop on a plane to Rome, or Tokyo,” I added. “I mean, not from here, of course. You’d have to go to D.C. or Atlanta first. But that’s what it’s all about. Making connections.”
“And maybe, misconceptions,” Jeff said. “It’s the anonymity. You could be anyone. Like Devin.”
‘An actual functioning airport’
In the course of my research, I asked Stephen Mueller of the architecture firm AGENCY how he would describe KCI, which he flew out of frequently while studying at the University of Kansas. He wrote:
I would describe KCI as instantaneously knowable — a simple architectural or planning idea made complicated by the demands of its users. It’s always felt to me like I was traveling through a flow chart about how an airport is supposed to be laid out, instead of traveling through an actual functioning airport. There were always strange glitches in the ideal operation (redundant security checks, strange trips through security just to get to a restroom, etc) that I found a bit annoying, and strange collisions of the planned geometry with the (apparently) retrofit additions and adjustments. Other airports that aren’t so clear about their ‘big idea’ seem to have been more forgiving when the idea’s failings start to appear, or new demands are placed on the operations.
For a different perspective, I asked the girl working at the coffee counter what her favorite feature of the airport was.
“I like the floor,” she said. “I think it’s actually imported from Italy.”
I’d never paid any special attention to it before, but looking down at the blue marble tiles and designs, I was instantly drawn in by the plus signs and dashes, a steady flow of anodes and diodes arranged like the currents on a wind map. How interesting that one of the most alluring aspects of the airport was the ground beneath our feet.
‘A whole ‘nother level’
At the end of Terminal A, we stepped outside and walked back toward Terminal B among people hurrying to and from cars, buses and shuttles. Despite not having a plane to catch, I found myself getting impatient and wanting to brush past them. All those years of conditioning myself to hurry through airports made it impossible not to.
As the hub of both Southwest and Delta, Terminal B is the one that feels the most like an actual airport, and we had high hopes for what we might find there. Shortly after entering, we saw a carpeted stairway leading up to some kind of lounge. There was a piano behind a velvet rope near a wine bar that boasted several fine offerings from Missouri Wine Country. “This is a whole ‘nother level,” Jeff said.
We skipped the wine bar in favor of a restaurant that looked pretty decent, but found it was only accessible to ticketed passengers behind beyond the security checkpoint. Instead we went to Jose Cuervo’s Tequileria, a lifeless mash-up of just about every generic Midwestern Mexican chain restaurant you can think of. We each ordered a margarita and split a chicken quesadilla for a total of $43.
Now as long as someone is willing to serve me real alcohol and something masquerading as a quesadilla, I’m not going to complain a whole lot. But plenty of people on Yelp! already have, netting Jose’s airport outpost a meager 2.5 star average. Elite reviewer Mike S. from Orlando wrote:
I knew it wouldn’t be good. But damn. This is bad. I like how they make it sound like the options for sauces is going to make it taste more authentic. WRONG. I’m not asking for authentic, i’m just asking for reasonable. Is that too much to ask?! Oh, yay!! I get to go back through security checkpoint for this crap. I shoulda slammed some Jose Cuervo tequila to make this place more enjoyable. But i’m willing to bet a shot cost $15, just guessing.
Bill C. from Shawnee said:
The is average Tex Mex. What did you expect? You’re in an airport. Suck it up.
Rose B. of Seattle said:
booze + airport = really good time.
Also, the Terminal B Sbarro’s appears to have vanished without a trace. A glance at FourSquare showed a woman had checked in to the Terminal B Sbarro’s just a few months before, meaning Sbarro’s had either closed very recently, or else a phantom franchise was operating somewhere in the terminal, fueled by secret pizza dough reserves hidden in the airport’s underground storage vaults. At KCI, you never know.
Jetblasts and Sweatpants
With its crowded parking lots and security lines, Terminal B is a fabulous place to people watch. Our friend Wes, who worked for Delta between semesters of college, says the people-watching at Terminal B is the best in the city.
“We used to call it Kansas City’s epicenter of fashion,” he said. “People would wear sweatpants. I mean, who wears fucking sweatpants to go flying?”
According to Wes, the lack of gentility extended to the grounds crew as well. Two of his coworkers were fired for stealing the in-flight meals straight off the airplane. Another nearly drove a luggage cart behind a plane’s jet blast — a force strong enough to knock over a one-ton truck — before Wes shouted at the last second that the engine was on.
The worst incident he witnessed was a new hire almost wave an airplane into a passenger airwalk, a blunder that would have easily cost millions.
“What most people don’t know is that the people out there directing planes and waving them in are a lot of poorly trained kids,” he said. “Any airplane that gets a scratch is automatically held back for inspection and can be grounded for a month. Airplanes are precious, precious things. A commercial jetcraft costs maybe in the neighborhood of 150 million. It’s certainly not something you want to direct into an airwalk.”
C is for Casio
By the time we stepped through the automatic doors of Terminal C, by this point slightly buzzed, the soprano saxophones sounded almost pernicious; the climate-controlled emptiness increasingly absurd. Through the locked doors of a closed-down business called the “Jazz District,” you could see a Casio keyboard mounted decoratively on the wall. “Nothing says Kansas City jazz like Casio,” Jeff said.
By this point any hopes of discovering unique landmarks or nostalgic signifiers in the airport were slim. Like the gradually curving chutes designed to lead unsuspecting cattle to slaughter, the arc of KCI keeps you believing you might stumble upon something awesome around the corner even though you never do.
We walked past a sad-looking bar full of businessmen on laptops, several of whom appeared to be asleep, before backtracking to the Budweiser Stadium Club for a final, unceremonious pint. Looking around at the drab surroundings, I felt like one of the reviewers who yelped: I came here with low expectations, and I was still disappointed.
Secretly, I had always believed our airport had more character than people gave it credit for, but there was very little here to love. With all the aesthetic charm of a Home Depot loading dock, it’s easy to see why KCI is an embarrassment to image-conscious Kansas Citians. On the other hand, maybe it just needs to try a little bit harder.
With the benefit of a few drinks, Jeff and I drafted up a few suggestions:
• Instead of muzak better suited for a dentist’s office or public access weather program, you could get a real jazz band to play once in a while. Maybe even a high school jazz band. The acoustics would be terrible, but it would be more lively.
• You could attract local food vendors / bakeries / barbecue joints instead of awarding corporate contracts to laughably generic corporate chains.
• Install displays of work by local artists instead of postcard scenery that becomes meaningless and depressing upon repetition.
• Establish functional, reliable transportation between the airport and various hubs in the city.
• Install an actual fountain outside Fountains of Seville.
• Consolidate all flights into one of the terminals, turning the second into an arboretum and the third into a menagerie.
• Host an annual three-terminal rave/charity event called “Liquids, Gels and Aerosols,” with the shuttle buses operating as mobile morality free-zones for the highest tier of donors.
The Red Bus (is calling us)
Having traversed the length of the facility, Jeff and I stood outside the end of terminal C, listening to jetliners firing up their engines while waiting for our beer buzz to die down.
I pointed out the little alcoves where people smoked cigs and played on their phones, recalling how convenient it had been to be able to see my mom coming from far enough away that I could put out my cigarette out in time. “I wish I had cigarettes,” Jeff said. “I would smoke them there.”
Jeff pulled up the KCI wikipedia page on his phone and read out loud about “TWA’s flawed vision” (the airport was unable to accommodate the 747) and the high number of wildlife strikes (1st in the U.S.). “The airport was dedicated on October 23, 1972, by Vice President Spiro Agnew,” he read, shaking his head. “And you wonder why this place hasn’t seen more miracles.”
Just then, we saw something moving into our field of vision from the far end of the horseshoe-shaped drive. It was the red bus – one of the passenger shuttles that runs in endless coils between terminals.
We hopped on and requested a stop at Terminal A, shrugging in confusion when the driver asked us what airline. I suddenly realized we were the only ones without any bags or luggage, which had to look puzzling to everyone else on board. I’d been trying not to attract any attention by appearing too goofy or giddy, but our proximity to actual passengers made it more difficult, especially after Jeff observed that the red bus was barely outpacing a woman on a motorized wheelchair.
“I think that’s Devin’s flight,” I said with a hiccup, pointing out the window at a descending aircraft. “I think Devin’s flight got canceled,” Jeff said.
While our effort to turn KCI into an entertainment district showed promise, it’s difficult to imagine the airport-as-social-hotspot thing catching on. For one, it’s too far away. For another, it’s too expensive. In little over two hours, Jeff and I spent almost $100 on food, drinks, parking, gas and more drinks. As appealing as it is to imagine a domestic sports stadium or airport not charging $9 for a beer, I’m afraid we forfeited that America long ago.
On our way out, we drove past the sculpture in the median, which on a cold March day looked like a lifeless billboard, but which on a summer night would be a fountain again, all lit up and alive in the Kansas City humidity.
Though I’d like to eventually see better public transit options, I do appreciate being able to hop in my car and be on the highway within minutes of landing. It always feels a bit like I’m sneaking quietly back into my life, especially at night. By the time I can see the skyline, I’ve almost forgotten I was even at the airport in the first place.
Perhaps that same emptiness people complain about is also what makes KCI so easy to fly through. The complete lack of ceremony is almost refreshingly archaic. Years from now, long after something else has taken its place, the three-terminal KCI may best be remembered for its utter forgettability.
(photos by Jennifer Wetzel)