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Kansas City gets its first chance to test out the new KCI airport terminal: ‘A beautiful space’

People riding an escalator travel down below a shimmering, multi-colored hanging sculpture. There are four different escalators visible in a bright, open space. In front of the people is a sign that reads "Welcome to Kansas City."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Volunteer travelers ride the escalator down to baggage claim after simulating arrival to the new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport. Above them is Soo Sunny Park's "Molten Swing," one of many local pieces of art that decorate the facility.

Around 600 volunteers carted baggage, went through check-in and baggage claim and just generally gawked at Kansas City’s new $1.5 billion, single airport terminal that officially opens in two weeks.

For the volunteers who got to be the first in Kansas City to “travel” through the new Kansas City International Airport terminal on Tuesday, the first sign of change was the parking lot.

The garage has seven levels and 6,300 spaces. Drivers were met with red and green electronic signs telling them how many spots were available on each level.

“The only big concern I had with, especially traveling with him, was how long of a walk it’s going to be from the garages to the terminal,” said Overland Park resident Jay Indurkar, who was traveling with his son, Aayush. The 12-year-old uses a wheelchair.

Indurkar said he was very satisfied with the distance from the garage to the terminal and other accessibility issues.

“All of our concerns have been laid to rest,” he said. “This is fantastic.”

Stress test

Indurkar was one of 600 volunteers who were chosen to participate in a travel simulation on Tuesday to experience the new terminal — behaving as if they were actually departing from and arriving at the airport, which opens for real on Feb. 28.

A man pushing a wheel chair with a young boy rolls through a set of several glass and metal security doors. He is carrying a travel bag and using a cell phone to record video inside a spacious, bright indoor facility.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Overland Park resident Jay Indurkar arrives to the baggage area with his 12-year-old son Aayush. They were among the approximately 600 volunteers who simulated a travel day at the new KCI single terminal.

The simulation was meant to provide real-world feedback on the effectiveness of wayfinding signage and other features. The volunteers were asked afterward to fill out a survey and offer feedback to airport officials.

From the parking garage, volunteers entered the departure area. Travelers checked their luggage and checked into their hypothetical flight at airline counters.

Iridescent pieces of art — from pink hearts to golden yellow suns — dangled from the high ceilings. Travelers walked past a closed Dunkin Donuts stand complete with a sign that reads “KC runs on Dunkin.”

Tuesday’s walkthrough provided an opportunity for airport officials to find out what needs fixing before real travelers start catching flights in two weeks.

“We know that there's a lot of things we have left to learn and things we're gonna learn very quickly in terms of signage, and … printers that need to be reset, things like that,” said Justin Meyer, deputy director of the Kansas City Aviation Department. “We're exactly two weeks out from the new terminal opening, and now's the time for us to get those last details correct. ”

The new terminal cost $1.5 billion and is the most expensive public infrastructure project in Kansas City to date. Meyer said travelers will have the same experience and access to amenities as other travelers — regardless of their airline.

People with luggage stand in front of a row of airline check-in counters. Behind the workers are large, blue, illuminated signs that read "United."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Volunteer travelers at KCI's new terminal check in Tuesday morning for their role in testing out the facility's protocols and procedures.

“The differences in whether or not the parking garage is full or not full, or whether or not there's food in my gate area or there's enough seating, all of that will really be equalized by the new facility,” Meyer said.

In the center of the departures area, between the rows of airline check-in counters, are more than a dozen TSA screening lines. After security, which was not yet functional on Tuesday, travelers walked to their designated gate. The new terminal features all-gender restrooms and separate facilities for nursing parents.

Along the way, volunteers could check out the new storefronts and eateries featuring Kansas City-area businesses. Those stands were still closed on Tuesday, but Meyer said he expects nearly all of the terminal’s storefronts to be operating on opening day.

A tall structure resembling a fountain stands in the main terminal lobby that leads to all departure gates, an homage to the “City of Fountains” created by Leo Villareal.

A green, illuminated sign shows white silhouettes of a man and woman. Above them, it reads "All Gender." Below them, it reads "32 Stalls Available" and "Next Restroom 3 min. walk."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Bathrooms at KCI's new terminal inform travelers how many stalls are available for use and how long it takes to find another.

A big part of the simulation, Meyer said, was making sure volunteers could find what they needed without extra help.

“We've been in this project for years now, and so there's a lot of things that we see with our eyes that aren't necessarily things that we're catching,” Meyer said.

Kansas City, grown up

Deborah Giddings of Lee’s Summit volunteered for the Tuesday simulation. Giddings says she’s flown just two times in the last 20 years out of the current Kansas City International Airport.

Giddings says she enjoyed the art featured throughout the airport and the number of food offerings.

“It's very nice to have the community represented at the airport as far as the food locations,” Giddings said.

Giddings’s husband is retired. Giddings said the new terminal will motivate them to fly more.

Lylette Utz, who is on the board of Visit KC, was emotional as she finished her simulation at the arrivals and baggage claim area. Utz had luggage with her, which she filled with an old pillow, shoes and a book.

On Feb. 28, when the new terminal opens to the public, Utz will board a morning flight to Honolulu. She’s seen the airport evolve several times.

Volunteers at KCI's new terminal wander through the baggage claim area on the bottom floor Tuesday morning after wrapping up a day of simulated flight travel.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Volunteers at KCI's new terminal wander through the baggage claim area on the bottom floor Tuesday morning after wrapping up a day of simulated flight travel.

“Decades ago, I was a flight attendant for TWA and when I flew out leaving home, I flew out of the old downtown airport,” Utz said. “When I flew back two years later, I flew into the existing Kansas City airport.”

Utz pretended to fly to and from Miami for the simulation. Utz and her husband travel four to five times a year. She says the terminal is workable and travel-friendly.

“I know people were concerned that it wouldn't be as convenient as the old, but I think it is,” she said.

Before 2019, Brian Crawford traveled two to three times a month. He says he’s impressed by the new terminal and likes the new layout. Crawford has an adult son who uses a wheelchair, and wanted to see what facilities were available for him at the new terminal.

He said the new terminal can accommodate his son better than the old airport. One example is full-size adult tables to help people change their clothes before or after their flight.

“We had only run into these one time before, in Orlando, and they really helped us,” Crawford said. “I saw at least three or four of them here in Kansas City.”

Lisa Qualls is an avid traveler. She says it’s great to have a new terminal that residents like herself can be proud of.

“For first-time travelers to our city, to be able to see us putting our best foot forward compared to what it's been in the past, it's been incredibly exciting,” she said. “And honestly I had a happy tear as I walked through the airport.”

People walk inside a large, bright airport area. At left is an illuminated sculpture that looks like a fountain.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Travelers arriving and departing at KCI's new terminal will walk past "Fountain" by Leo Villareal as they move between Concourse A and Concourse B.

Still, some volunteers think the terminal has room for improvement. Linda Crow said there were not enough signs to guide people.

“In the parking garage, it was hard to follow. They're really small signs,” she said. “There wasn't a lot of signs directing you how to go up to different levels that I saw. There wasn't signs directing you to some of the facilities that they had me try to find.”

Kansas City resident Laura Collings said it was easy to get around.

Her job was to pretend to travel to Honolulu, and she lamented not being able to actually take flight on a rainy, gray Tuesday in Kansas City.

“I wish there was really an airplane there,” she said.

Collings said she was impressed by how easy it was to navigate the new terminal.

“I checked in with United and went down to my gate and checked it out and looked at all the artwork,” she said. “Artwork is amazing. It really is a beautiful space.”

Collings said she grew up in Atlanta and has flown from that airport and the old KCI terminal for years. She compared the world’s busiest airport to Kansas City’s new and old terminals.

“It’s like Kansas City grew up,” she said.

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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