KCI>KCI: Last Flight Out, First Flight In

by Lucas Wetzel

On the night of Jan. 30, I was scrolling through my phone when I saw a tweet from a guy named Peter about how he was going to do something crazy and take the very last flight out of the old Kansas City International Airport and the very first flight into the new Kansas City International Airport.

The last flight out would depart the old KCI at 10:45 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 27, and arrive at Chicago’s Midway airport at midnight. The return flight would depart Midway six hours later and arrive at the brand-new KCI at 7:40 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Crazy, yes, but also brilliant. Within minutes, I had the same route booked. The journey promised the perfect mix of madcap civic adventure, poetic symmetry, and transformational potential. The end destination was back where we started, but in that time it would become somewhere else—and all within the span between two work days.

The flights set me back 13,000 Southwest points, or the equivalent of about $200. I figured everyone was going to want to hop on this trip, so I’d better book it right away. But I needn’t have worried. The flights stayed the same price for weeks and never came close to selling out.

At first, I wasn’t sure I would go through with it either. I groaned the next morning reading the confirmation emails and didn’t say anything to my wife for two days. I figured I would just be putting the “fun” in “refund.” But when I started telling friends at work about the trip a few days later, it was too late to back down. “This feels like the most Lucas thing ever,” one colleague said. 

In my defense, this was a heady moment for my hometown. The Chiefs were on their way to competing in their third Super Bowl in four years. Weed would be legal in Missouri later that week. People couldn’t spend money fast enough on all things Kansas City, so naturally the first thing I thought to purchase was a ticket away from this place — and immediately back again. A midnight joy ride into regional transit history with a few new pals and likely cameos on local news. 

On Twitter, I joined the group thread of a dozen or so “round trippers,” as we began calling ourselves. There wasn’t much chatter at first. I started to wonder what we would do with our six hours in Chicago. Rent a fancy hotel and drink champagne? Venture into the city? Camp out in the airport and tell ghost stories about the old terminals?

I also wondered was driving each of us to take this whimsical, environmentally irresponsible “there and back again” journey? What, if anything, were we hoping to find? I had notions of “The Breakfast Club”-type camaraderie, or the dramatic backstories of the characters on the TV show “Lost” (featuring KCI instead of LAX, and hopefully without the crash). Or maybe it would just be a lot of people looking at their phones and sleeping. 

Soon the group chat fired up with discussions of Chicago’s best 4 a.m. bars and CTA routes into the city. Our group consisted of several self-described transit geeks, some former city officials who had taken part in the legislative groundwork for the new airport, TV reporters from channels 9 and 41, some people making a nostalgia trip with family members, and a few general oddballs like myself.

For me, the trip would be a fitting bookend to another pointedly pointless KCI adventure I had taken exactly ten years earlier: a three-terminal pub crawl meant to memorialize the last days of Terminal A. On that occasion, my friend Jeff and I had set out to the airport with the sole purpose of hanging out and having a drink in all three terminals, riding the Red Bus around in circles, admiring the cobalt blue of the terrazzo floor and mosaic medallions through increasingly blurry eyes. A tipsy, preemptive stroll down memory lane.

For the 2023 round-trip, I packed light: an extra shirt, a frisbee (you never know), and a copy of “The Galloping Hour” by Alejandra Pizarnik. I also brought a special edition of The Kansas City Star from Oct. 15, 1972 commemorating the opening of the old KCI  — a timely estate sale treasure found by my brother earlier that week in a stack of newsprint.

On Monday night, Feb. 27, I drove out to the airport, drinking coffee in a thermos and listening to the evening rebroadcast of KCUR’s “Up to Date,” which was all about the new airport. Steve Kraske interviewed Sly James and got live updates about whether Pete Buttigieg had arrived yet (say what you will about Mayor Pete, he’s a major upgrade in mojo from 1972’s honored KCI guest, Spiro Agnew). Kraske also hinted that Southwest would be doing something special for the passengers on the last and first flights. We’d soon find out.

I parked on the surface garage instead of my usual satellite spot, since I was feeling fancy. The old airport, however, looked like a big box store that was going out of business. Makeshift signs hung on every other door of Terminal B that said: “Closed for Season” or “Closed for the Winter.” A few children in pajamas ran through the terminal while their parents sat on a bench. Groups of yellow caution dummies encircled a wastebasket in what looked like a handfasting ceremony. I took some pictures and admired the mosaics, which now seemed to have gained the anthropological importance of a cathedral relic.

Security took less than two minutes. Waiting behind a sixth-grader and her dad who would be making the round trip together, I remembered the time I had spilled an entire 32-ounce coke on myself while trying to eat lunch from Sbarros in the security line. That had sucked. And to make it worse the Sbarros closed for good soon after. At least the new KCI would have new eating options in the secure area.

There was a full-on party underway at the gate for Southwest flight 336. A balloon arch hung above the walkway. The airline served cookies and commemorative Coke bottles and played “The Final Countdown” while round-trippers gave interviews and introduced themselves IRL. A veteran airport employee asked to leaf through the newspaper I brought. One of the gate operators held his phone up to film his surroundings, singing “Goodbye, KCI!” with evident joy.

Once we were on the plane, you could see all the personnel lined up in the window bays waving and taking pictures. It reminded me of going to the airport as a kid, back when you could go all the way to the holdroom windows without going through security. I remember cupping my windows and looking out at the plane, pretending I could see my grandparents waving back at me. My earliest memory of KCI reflected in my final glimpse.

The airline announced they would not be serving drinks, “due to a turbulence that never materialized,” as Adam Vogler from the Kansas City Business Journal astutely observed. This was probably a wise call by someone higher up. It wouldn’t be a good look if the airport’s first passengers got too much of a head start and were barely able to stand coming off the jetway the next morning.

At Midway, a few people left for hotels or planned to bunker down in the airport for the night. The rest of us took up a whole car of the Orange Line L and got to know each other as we headed toward the downtown loop. The former city council members I talked to had all settled into private life, and this seemed like more of a reflective journey than a victory lap. Charlie Keegan from Channel 41 and Adam from the Business Journal asked us questions and took pictures. The rest of us cracked jokes and pretended we weren’t all going to be completely exhausted by daybreak.

We took turns looking through the old newspaper—the ads featuring businessmen flying in comfort, served by quintessentially 1970s stewardesses. The tentative plans for a Terminal D that was never built. An advert for a fence company named Broski Bros. A full-page ad touting the robust labor pool of Clay County.

In Chicago, we hit the ground running. We walked over the river, took a group photo near Marina City, and packed into Mother Hubbard’s, a crowded bar where people played pool, blew giant vape clouds, and danced to Cardi B and Bad Bunny. It was loud and smelled like beer and grease. Sweet Home, Chicago: Sometimes it just smacks you in the face.

At 2:30, a few of us took an Uber to the Old Town Ale House — quieter, darker, and filled with funny, expressionistic paintings. Much more my speed. “If it’s good enough for Anthony Bourdain, it’s good enough for me,” said Christi, a photographer and urban explorer enthusiast who was traveling with her boyfriend, Nick.

Before we knew it, it was last call. Our worries about whether we’d be able to hang until 4 a.m. disappeared with the realization that it was already time to get back to Midway.

The contrast between our festive pre-board loitering vs. the stoic bewilderment of the routine business travelers set up quite a culture clash. As Christi handed out pom-poms and party blowers, several passengers just sat there and stared. I felt somewhere between the two worlds, buzzed but exhausted. “Two Red Eyes Are Better Than One” had been a fun slogan for Twitter, but the reality of bright lights and tired faces at 5 a.m. was a bit bleak.

To their credit, the Southwest crew kept things lively, playing funk music and handing out goodie bags of popcorn as we boarded. They even rolled out a literal red carpet.

I fell asleep before takeoff, waking up just in time to open the little oval window slat and see the sunrise over the left wing. Misty clouds extended in a sheet for thousands of miles. I had the kind of thoughts you have when you haven’t slept for a long time: Air travel is such a miracle. This view is an angel’s flight path. What a cool thing it is to be alive.

Soon the KC skyline came into view, our little urban island rising improbably out of a sea of fields and trees. As my eyes traced the bends of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers, I felt the un-knotting of long-held inner tensions. Not just from the sleepless night, but from the challenges and stress of the past few years. I thought about all the times I’d left or returned to Kansas City, each trip offering at least some promise of renewal. Now, at the statistical halfway point in my life, I felt momentarily weightless, the trek across historical eras providing a unique opportunity for reflection. “I know I’m small, but I enjoy living anyway,” to quote the band T. Rex.

When we landed, the flight attendant welcomed us to Kansas City, “home of the Super Bowl champions and the 2016 MLB champs.” Not quite, but we cheered anyway. “This feels like driving past the old middle school on the way to your new high school,” he said as we taxied past the old terminal. A fire truck parked on the runway hosed down the plane, making it feel like we were in a giant car wash. Was this normal procedure? I was so sleep deprived I couldn’t tell. I needed coffee.

But first: a tray of champagne and mimosas as we stepped off the plane, courtesy of Amigoni Winery. All around me, people were hugging, cheering, taking pictures. Charlie was reunited with his camera crew. Former council member and fellow round-tripper Jolie Justus embraced a tearful Justin Meyer, the Deputy Director of Aviation, who had been out on the tarmac the night before and almost certainly hadn’t slept with such a big day ahead. 

I’d been so caught up in the logistics and hype of the round-trip journey that I hadn’t really stopped to appreciate what a big day this was. An airport is a hugely important symbol in a city and often a traveler’s first impression. So many people worked for over a decade to make the new airport a reality at an estimated cost of over $1.5 billion. Now all of a sudden here we were, dazed and feeling almost like time travelers.

I had intentionally avoided any of the previews of the new terminal, but could see the rumors were true: it really was beautiful. Bright natural light, sleek lines, and colorful art everywhere. Not only was this the region’s new transit hub, it was also Kansas City’s newest and largest art museum, featuring sculpture and installations from 28 select regional and international artists.

I got a coffee from the Messenger kiosk (so long, Starbucks) and wandered around the terminal. Several round trippers were doing the same. I sat for a while at the “Fountain (KCI)” sculpture by Leo Villareal, which he created to inspire “a sense of wonder, awe and contemplation.” Mission accomplished.

Instead of waiting for the red bus, I walked awkwardly across streets and medians back to the old parking garage. Terminal B, now fully “closed for the season,” looked like a lifeless husk, its raison d’etre having departed overnight. But its gravity still held some sway. I couldn’t find my car for a while, which felt like a final lazy wink from the old MCI.

Somehow I made it to my morning meetings and afternoon calls with just a brief nap over lunch. I texted a bit with pals from the journey and scanned my phone for interview clips. I watched the footage of our plane being bathed in a plume of water. They called it a “water salute” on the news, though it looked a lot more like a baptism for the new runway.

It’s funny how even a silly experience can become something meaningful thanks to the power of ritual. Our round-trip journey was marked by ceremony every step of the way, from the balloon arch and cookies, to the funk music and popcorn, to champagne and a water salute. With our custom t-shirts, souvenirs, photos, and camaraderie, the round trippers had teamed up to make this an experience none of us would ever forget. 

We’d said goodbye to the lost civilization of the old terminals, with their winding horseshoe design, tile mosaics, baffling security arrangements and legendary convenience. We’d hit our Midway point at midnight and kept the party going until dawn. And today—thankfully, gloriously—we had landed somewhere new. 

Categories: Essay