November 12, 1972, marked the middle of a terrifying 32-hour jet hijacking, one of the more remarkable such air-industry ordeals in U.S. history.
A trio of hijackers, one of them a prison escapee, commandeered a Southern Airways DC-9 leaving Alabama with 27 passengers and four crew members. At one point, they threatened to crash the plane into a nuclear-weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, unless authorities met their demands — chiefly $10 million in cash.
They got some of their cash and had the pilot steer the plane to Havana, where the hijackers thought they would get a soft landing and a warm welcome in Cuba. Instead, Fidel Castro greeted the weary passengers and crew and then tossed the hijackers in prison.
The same day, Kansas City International Airport opened.
That day's edition of The Kansas City Star played the hijacking above the fold, higher than the hometown debut of the facility's three terminals.
The hijacking, one of many during the 1970s and among the first to suggest that a passenger plane could be used as a weapon, also hinted that KCI's security outlay may have been outmoded from Day One. Almost 30 years later, 9/11 happened, and KCI's design further accelerated toward obsolescence.
There are reasonable cases to make in advocating for a new, single-terminal airport design, with security being perhaps the foremost. But Kansas Citians shouldn't be confused about what a new terminal will not bring: more airline business and more travel options.
The experience of other new terminals over the past six years shows that, as airlines consolidate and eschew consumer options in favor of profitability, $1.2 billion of construction at KCI's Terminal A is no guarantee of an increase in flights, passengers or revenue.
Mark VanLoh laughs when he's shown a copy of a May 11, 1994, New York Times article characterizing the then-new Denver International Airport as a "Field of Dreams."
That airport, beset by long construction delays and big cost overruns, was and has remained a widely panned example of a major development project not delivering on build-it-and-they-will-come promises.
VanLoh, an unabashed supporter of the new single-terminal KCI, is careful not to promise what only airlines can deliver.
"Some would want me to guarantee if we build a new terminal, we will get new flights," VanLoh told a City Council committee on April 4. "And no one in this room is going to do that. No one on Earth can guarantee what the airlines are going to do next week. But we can guarantee you now that we simply don't have space for some of our larger airlines to add flights."
But literature produced by KCI veers toward that promise.
"The new terminal will include common use gates and open possibilities for additional domestic, international and direct flights that KCI currently can't accommodate," reads a question-and-answer sheet published by the Kansas City Aviation Department in April. "Fewer connections and more direct flights will increase business and personal travel options, increasing Kansas City's appeal for all travelers."
About 10 years ago, some 500,000 passengers connected on flights through KCI. Today about half as many do.
VanLoh blames the decline on the difficulty of connecting flights through KCI. "These people are connecting somewhere, but they're not doing it here," he tells The Pitch. "Because it's so hard to connect here."
A new terminal would include common-use gates, which allow several airlines to use the same gate at different times of the day, rather than the clumsy lease arrangements now in place at KCI.
Mineta San José International Airport, for example, allows a Japanese airliner to use a gate there for a half day to send its one daily flight out across the Pacific Ocean, rather than leasing on a permanent basis for mostly unused space.