An Airport with Friends
© Jack Cashill
Kansas City International Airport, now in its forty-something-th year, has friends. As Garth Brooks might say, they’re in low places, most of them anyhow, but they are making lots of trouble for the high hats in the area’s Whig establishment.
These “Friends of KCI” are busily gathering petitions to force a public vote in November on whether the City of Kansas City should sink $1.5 billion into a new single- terminal airport at KCI. “The best response we get,” says Friends’ spokesman John Murphy, “is from business people flying back into KCI. They like what they’ve got.”
By way of background, 19th-century Whigs mostly just believed in modernization and public improvements. As history reminds us, that wasn’t enough to hold them together for long, especially since their elected presidents (two out of two) kept dying in office.
Contemporary Whigs wear a variety of party labels, but their common denominator is the same as Whigs of old: to modernize, to get stuff built, to do some deals. Private? Public? Public-private? Private-public? Court decreed? Who cares, as long as someone’s building something somewhere nearby.
Some Whigs are in it for the glory. Some are in it for the contracts. Some are in it, maybe most, are in it because they think they are supposed to be in it. Whig Mayor Sly James is all in. “We’re either going to be on the cutting edge or we’re going to be left behind,” James told The Star. “We can make this a purely, strictly, really cool Kansas City icon with all the stuff that we now know from every other airport that’s been built.”
Translation: We want to be just like all the other cool kids. We’ve got a downtown just like theirs now. We’ll soon have light rail just like theirs, if a little stupider. And now we can have an airport just like theirs, too.
The coalition challenging James and his allies cuts across traditional political lines as well. If 19th-century labels applied, they would be Jackson Democrats—populist, common-sense folks who want a say on how these soft-core Whigs spend their hard-earned wages.
In April, left-leaning blogger Tony Botello of Tony’s KC announced his membership in “Friends,” a purely grassroots coalition that has allies in the libertarian Show-Me Institute, in Tea Party groups, and in neighborhood organizations as well. How grassroots? They don’t pay for petitions, and that today is as rare as not paying for a lap dance.
After the City Council’s Transportation Committee voted to green-light the new airport project in April, The Star’s Lynn Horsley summed up the current state of the Whig-Jacksonian debate: “Kansas City officials forged ahead Thursday toward a new airport terminal,” wrote Horsley, “more determined than ever, even while acknowledging the public probably isn’t on board yet with that goal.” There’s no “probably” about it. Taxpayers are not “on board,” and the more they learn about the project, the quicker they scurry back down the jetway.
Unlike other Whiggish inspirations—light rail comes quickly to mind—there is a sane argument to be made to build a new terminal. For better or worse, how-ever, the people charged with making it are botching the job.
The official “Fact Sheet,” for instance, lists “Innovation” among the benefits of a new airport. “The eyes of the aviation world will be on Kansas City,” we are told, “as we consolidate into a single terminal with unique and up-to-date passenger processing making the Kansas City Airport one-of-a-kind.”
Who wrote this copy? If 19th-century Whigs had produced this kind of empty-headed happy talk, we still wouldn’t have the railroad.
As a first benefit, proponents argue that the project will generate construction jobs. True enough. But if the city spent $1.5 billion of our money on anything—say, the world’s largest ball of twine—that would generate a lot of jobs too.
In that same “Jobs Catalyst” paragraph, proponents claim, “Additional domestic and direct flights will make Kansas City more attractive to businesses and conventions.” The “more attractive” part makes sense if there were more additional flights, but there is no evidence those flights will happen.
As a second benefit, proponents cite “centralized security.” Benefit to whom? The S&M crowd? KCI is the one airport in America where humans don’t queue up like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse. Our lines are shorter and, as a result, the TSA folks less sadistic than any airport with a control tower.
As to “Improved Amenities,” yes, the new airport will likely offer those. Passengers will even need them when they start arriving two hours in advance to get through the security chutes in time.
The fourth listed benefit is “More and Better Parking.” I don’t buy this one at all. Centralized terminals inevitably push passengers away from access points. If parking is an issue, why not sate our Whiggish lusts on a cool new parking garage and save a billion or so on the airport?
As a fifth benefit, airport Whigs promise “increased travel options.” Not so fast. In Cincinnati, with its shiny airport and newfound status as a Delta hub, those “benefits” include domestic ticket prices nearly 40 percent higher than in nearby Dayton, and international prices 36 percent above the national norm.
No fools, local businesses started flying their travelers out of Dayton. Non-business travelers have done the same. Result? Passenger traffic is down 65 percent in Cincinnati since 2005. “Unless you’re suffering from delusion, you realize that the Cincinnati airport is now really in Dayton,” aviation expert Darryl Jenkins told The Cincinnati Enquirer.
To be fair, Cincinnati does have better amenities than KCI or Dayton. I buy a cup of yogurt every time I lay over there. Cha-ching!
As to “Environmental Improvements,” we are told that the new airport will do a better job “capturing deicing fluids.” I had to read the word “deicing” several times before I figured it must mean “de-icing.”
Then too, the single terminal “will require less (sic) bus trips to and from the consolidated rental car facilities.” Sigh! What pathetically little carbon emissions these buses save, our cars will make up many times over as they circle the terminal—Keep moving! Keep moving!—and jockey for space in the three or four lanes clogged with incoming traffic.
As the ultimate benefit, of course, this new airport comes at no expense to the taxpayer. Aviation bonds and private financing will cover the cost. Just like the Power & Light District, the 18th and Vine District and more, the new KCI will pay for itself. It continues to amaze me how much I get for free in Kansas City!
Despite my critique, this project may actually make sense. If it does, airport Whigs would be well advised to tell taxpayers why and, in the process, treat them like adults. The Jacksonians do, and that is why they are winning the debate.
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