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KCI requires new and existing carriers to lease gates in three- to five-gate increments. The way the airport is laid out, other deals could undercut existing leases, causing other carriers to cry foul.
Alaska Airlines figured out a way around this, for what airport officials say was a premium. That company replaced Southwest Airlines' Kansas City-to-Seattle route but did not want to lease three gates for one flight, so it subleased one of Delta Airlines' gates. And it's reportedly paying a steep price for that luxury.
Despite the addition of Alaska Airlines, though, KCI's travel options have steadily eroded since 2007.
From that time through last year, departures dropped from 87,976 to 61,421 — a 30-percent swoon that's higher than the average 26-percent drop experienced by similarly sized airports over the same span, according to data from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The decline has more to do with the airline industry than it does with airports. "You don't build a new terminal to get new air services," says Mike Boyd, founder of the Denver airline consulting firm Boyd Group International.
VanLoh agrees with that assessment — mostly. "We're not building this for next week," he says. "We're building this for the future. It's cyclical. We want to have the option for them [airlines] to add [flights] effortlessly."
Ed Ford, a Kansas City councilman whose Northland district includes KCI, was against a single-terminal design before he was for it. "Southwest can't expand [at KCI]," he says. "If Southwest has a business decision to expand in four of five years, it isn't going to be at KCI."
The mergers of major carriers over the years, such as United Airlines and Continental, or Northwest and Delta, has reduced competition and, thus, the number of departures and arrivals at KCI and airports like it.
Fewer seats are bad for consumers but good for airlines — lower operating costs and higher demand (with corresponding higher prices) for seats. Which is why city officials like Ford may want to get comfortable waiting for Southwest to expand.
Kansas City's average fare was $292.75 in the third quarter of 2006. Its 18 percent growth to $345.69 in the third quarter of 2012 outpaced the national average increase — 10 percent — over the same period.
A study released this month by MIT says this dynamic hits airports like KCI the hardest. When, for example, Southwest Airlines — KCI's primary carrier — cuts domestic departures, "medium-hub airports [are left] in a precarious position," the MIT study says. It goes on: "With both network carriers and Southwest cutting service, these 'secondary airports' are often no longer able to compete on service or price with larger, nearby hubs."
For proof, just ask the folks at Indianapolis International Airport.
That airport opened a $1.1 billion terminal in 2008, just in time for a global financial crisis.
The year before that new terminal opened, Indianapolis International Airport had 65,539 departures. Last year, it logged just 49,641.
"Airlines are tending to appreciate profits more than market share, where in the past, if one airline initiated service, you'd see the other airlines have a knee-jerk reaction," says Carlo Bertolini, a spokesman for the Indianapolis airport. "After years of losses, we've seen them be smarter in how they dole out capacity."
Ticket costs have grown in Indianapolis, too, reaching an average fare of $376.24 in 2012, up almost 20 percent from $314.94 in 2006.
KCI is also losing market share to smaller airports that used to connect to other destinations through Kansas City. Airports like those in Manhattan, Kansas, and Columbia, Missouri, are subsidizing carriers to draw business rather than have their customers drive to KCI for a flight.