Original KCI architect looks back on history of airport

Published: Feb. 24, 2023 at 10:06 PM CST
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - Soon, it will be out with the old and in with the new at KCI. The airport will shift operations to its new terminal next week. The new terminal is more than one million square feet and cost $1.5B -- but before it was on the cutting edge, its predecessor was in the early 1970s.

Bob Berkebile was integral to designing and building the original terminals at KCI. Talk to him, and you can still see the twinkle in his eye when he reflects on when the facility opened in 1972.

“This structure was made of concrete of the aggregate that came from the ground here and it was brown,” Berkebile said with a smile. “We used white cement not to change the color, so it wouldn’t be gray like other concrete, it would be like the color of the earth from which the aggregate was harvested.”

In the early 1970s, KCI was considered a world-class airport. Lufthansa, a German airline, went so far as to call the airport the “future of aviation.” Its hallmark? Customer convenience -- where air travelers had to walk a short distance from the curb to their aircraft. KCI caught the eyes of the aviation world and was copied by many.

“Dallas-Fort Worth was the first airport to be designed and built in this concept,” Berkebile said. “Several others then followed in Europe. Several others were under design when we started having this shift in security. The shift in security was in direct conflict with customer convenience.”

On the day the airport opened, a plane was hijacked. There were other issues after that, and then 9/11. Following that date, Berkebile says the airport turned obsolete.

“Following 9/11, the additional security made it literally impossible for this to operate in any form of convenience or efficiency,” Berkebile said. “Everybody was losing at that point.”

Fast forward to the present, and Kansas City is ready to open a brand-new terminal. Berkebile has seen the facility from its early stages, and he says air travelers are going to love it.

“I am certain, and I’ve been there several times, that as the community begins to use that terminal, we are going to be celebrating the next half-century or more in an appropriate way,” he said.