Kansas City Int’l Sets New Standards for Accessibility and Inclusiveness

Kansas City Int’l Sets New Standards for Accessibility and Inclusiveness
Kristin V. Shaw
Published in: 

Straddling the border of two states, Kansas City has some parts in Kansas and other parts in Missouri. While that can prove confusing, it’s crystal clear that the whole region is rallying behind the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport (MCI), which is on the Missouri side of town.

Scheduled to open next spring, the new terminal will include 1 million new square feet of space, 39 gates, 6,150 parking spaces and the arrivals and departures split into two levels for customer convenience and better traffic flow. Locally, the $1.5 billion initiative is the largest single infrastructure project in the city’s history. With features such as a sensory room, all-gender restrooms and provisions that will allow extra-wary travelers to practice clearing security and boarding a real aircraft, the terminal is setting new accessibility and inclusiveness standards for the entire airport industry.

In its early years, MCI was at the forefront of modern design with three terminals and a “drive-to-your-gate” strategy. When traffic patterns evolved and new security protocols were incorporated, the Kansas City Missouri Aviation Department realized changes would be necessary; but recommendations for a single terminal fell flat in 1995 and 2009. It wasn’t until 2013 that the city council cast a wide net to explore the community’s needs. As a result, a new single-terminal design was proposed with data to back it up, and voters overwhelmingly approved the project near the end of 2017.


Project: New Terminal

Location: Kansas City (MO) Int’l Airport

Owner: City of Kansas City Aviation Dept.

Terminal Size: 1 million sq. ft.

Cost: $1.5 billion

Strategy: Replace 3 outdated terminals with 1 updated facility designed to be accessible for all visitors

Developer: Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate

Architect: Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill

Design Build Joint Venture: Clark|Weitz|Clarkson

Joint Venture Members: Clark Construction Group (lead builder); The Weitz Company; Clarkson Construction (local construction partner)

Timeline: Request for proposals issued in 2017, awarded that fall; construction began in 2019; terminal slated to open spring 2023

Accessibility/Inclusivity Features: Sensory Room; Meditation/Quiet Room; all-gender restrooms, some with adult changing rooms; wider passenger circulation areas; universally accessible children’s play area; ADA-compliant counter heights in ticketing area; minimal level changes & sloped floors instead of ramps; military USO lounge; Airplane Simulation Room that will allow nervous flyers chance to practice clearing security & boarding actual aircraft cabin

Key Benefits: Accommodating more diverse population of visitors; updating facilities to reflect changes in security process & traffic flow; wider concourses with improved amenities

Aiming High

When Former Kansas City Mayor Sly James put together a terminal task force in 2013, the Aviation Department didn’t know how many gates it needed, nor had it engaged the airlines. It was all very conceptual at that point. Conversely, Mayor James had a specific focus in mind based on community input. He tasked MCI leaders with building the most inclusive, most accessible airport terminal in the world, and the Aviation Department took his vision to heart.

“The existing terminal is only about 70 feet wide and one-third of a mile long, and there’s just not enough room for the things our passengers deserve,” says Justin Meyer, Aviation Department deputy director of Aviation.

When the new terminal opens in 2023, passengers will find a host of new amenities in the 90-foot-wide concourses, including a universally accessible indoor play area and a military USO lounge. While the previous terminal had two nursing areas for traveling mothers and babies, the new one will include 10. In the ticketing area, the height of every counter complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (rather than just a few select stations), and the screens are height-adjustable for agents.

Less obvious, but impactful, touches incorporated by project architect Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill include thoughtfully sloped floors instead of ramps, which are much easier to traverse for passengers with mobility challenges. Jordan Pierce, an associate principal with Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill, says the design team also took care to minimize level changes to help guests traveling with small children and/or those navigating the airport in a wheelchair.

The project team was also driven by the desire to keep everything aboveground. “In this new building, you are always able to orient yourself based on your surroundings, versus being underground,” Pierce explains. “Transferring underground in an artificially lit space is a different experience. We don’t want this to feel like a factory that is processing people; we want it to be enjoyable.”

Project Partners

After the votes were in and MCI was committed to moving forward with the project, the Aviation Department issued a request for proposals from firms to design and build it. The submission from Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate brought innovative ideas to the table for creating and funding the new terminal.

“We showed that we wanted this airport terminal to be a community asset,” says Edgemoor Senior Managing Director Geoff Stricker. “We didn’t show up with any preconceived notion about what the terminal looked like. We said we wanted to sit down with the airport operator and community, and I think that resonated with the city.”

Working side-by-side with Edgemoor and the Aviation Department are architect Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill and builder Clark|Weitz|Clarkson, a joint venture comprised of Clark Construction Group, The Weitz Company and Clarkson Construction. 

Clark Construction Vice President Mark Goodwin serves as the project director and has been overseeing the design-build effort ever since the Aviation Department chose Edgemoor in 2017 as its partner to develop, design and construct the new facility. “I believe we were selected for our approach,” says Goodwin. “We started with an open mind and wanted to hear what the city wanted. This has served us well in the past. Clients are looking for someone they can trust and who feels the success of the project fits their objectives.”

The joint venture team has been in lockstep with Edgemoor’s philosophy from the beginning, he adds.

Quiet Spaces

By their very nature, airport terminals are busy, noisy places. Passengers at MCI who want or need to escape loud, distracting areas will find relief in the form of two purpose-built spaces. One is a sensory room designed to be a quiet, calm place to ease stress before or after flying.

Meyer notes that families with children on the autism spectrum who need a less chaotic experience will greatly benefit from this progressive amenity. Low lights, soft surfaces and appealing textures/fabrics are used to set the tone. 

The new terminal will also include a meditation/quiet room. The team worked with the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council to ensure it would be appropriate for all religions and travelers.

“Some airport operators have created chapels in terminals to serve their passengers, but we feel this is the best of both worlds,” Meyer says. “Whether someone wants to roll out a prayer rug for one experience or roll out a yoga mat for a different kind of experience, this will serve passengers needing a little sensory deprivation.”

Both of the quiet rooms were the direct result of input from local residents, special interest groups and airport staff. An MCI employee with a child on the autism spectrum provided honest, detailed feedback about proposed design features for the sensory and meditation/quiet rooms.

Local dementia advocacy groups provided insight about how designers could make the overall terminal environment more inclusive for those with dementia, too.

“Simple things matter, like soft seating and mobile companion seating,” Pierce comments. “It’s not a complete re-thinking of the terminal, but listening to those who will use it and finding solutions.”

Restrooms for All

The most forward-thinking change in the new terminal may be its all-gender restrooms. Once again, the project team and airport staff turned to the community for input, this time the LGBT Chamber of Commerce of Kansas City and LGBT+ Commission. Meyer says the new restrooms increase flexibility and offer a more equitable experience for all.

In recent years, some airports have added small locking family restrooms to supplement traditional men’s and women’s facilities in the terminal. Meyer says that strategy is a good start, but MCI is taking it a step further to accommodate even more passengers. The new design includes multi-user facilities with lockable stalls and shared sink space, which provides privacy while serving more guests at once.

“We’re going to blow people’s minds,” says Meyer. “This isn’t just a family restroom; we recognize that a variety of communities reap the benefits.”

 He cites a mother traveling with 8- and 10-year-old sons as just one example. “The sons are too old to go in the women’s restroom, but she doesn’t want to send them into the men’s restroom alone,” Meyer explains. “We see all-gender bathrooms as a natural progression to lean into accessibility and inclusiveness, and this seemed like a straightforward decision on how we can make this easiest for everyone.”

Pierce agrees, adding that all-gender bathrooms are something the design community is seeing more desire for. “It’s accommodating for the trans community, and it’s also helpful for all passengers,” he remarks.

MCI’s new restrooms will also include adult-size changing tables, which can make a huge difference for caretakers and visitors who need them. In addition, there will be stalls without commodes to serve as changing rooms—much like dressing rooms in clothing stores.

“When you’re going to a business meeting and you need to change at the airport, do you really want to change in a bathroom stall?” Pierce asks. “This is an idea to make it as comfortable as possible. We’re bringing benches into the space and high partitions.”

Designers arranged the standard restroom stalls in pods and specified doors that open outward instead of inward. This will eliminate the need for visitors to twist themselves into pretzels to get inside with luggage.

Airplane Simulation Room

On the airside, MCI is building an Airplane Simulation Room for those afraid of flying due to claustrophobia, autism or any other condition. The room will include a simulated gate area, simulated passenger boarding bridge, and a real aircraft cabin pulled from the fuselage of an Airbus A-321. Airport personnel will work with interested guests to pre-schedule a time for them to come to the airport, check in and experience the processes of clearing a TSA security checkpoint and boarding an aircraft without the pressures of scheduled flight times.

The Simulation Room will allow people with various aversions or challenges to practice elements of air travel that can prove difficult: stepping onto the jet bridge and looking down, turning over personal carry-on items for security screening, fastening a seatbelt securely, etc. Plans are also in the works to arrange multiple flight crew introductions.

“The real hope is that we can turn non-flyers into flyers by giving families with young travelers or whomever might benefit the most the opportunity to test run before buying the tickets,” Meyer explains. “That pre-flight experience will help them get away from the fear and help see the magic of flight.”

While other airports have similar programs, Meyer notes that MCI is once again developing a great concept even further. “We don’t want to be the only one who has one of these in the U.S.,” he adds. “I hope other airports will take our Simulation Room blueprint and improve upon it, too.”

More information about programs at Boston Logan International and Minneapolis-St. Paul International is available in the Sept. 2014 issue of Airport Improvement magazine.

Local Impact

Representing Edgemoor, it was Stricker’s job to listen to the many stakeholders involved with the terminal project and try to thread the needle to satisfy all of them.

“Meeting community expectations was a challenge, and we’re very proud that one thing the city and community were interested in was to increase participation by women and minority groups,” he says. “Ultimately, we achieved a higher degree of woman- and minority-owned business participation than the city expected, which translated to more than $300 million in contracts for these firms.”

Stricker points back to the community regarding the results, adding that feedback has been positive about the fair and transparent contract process.

In order to ramp up the local workforce, Edgemoor implemented a three-week training program for men and women wanting to work in the construction industry. Stricker says its retention rate is higher than the average construction industry average, and more than 140 people from the program have worked on the terminal project.

“So far, it’s an incredible success,” Stricker reports. “We’ve helped to create the workforce of the future in Kansas City, and I’m extremely proud of this project for the tremendous economic impact this will make on the city for years to come.”

Goodwin cites a positive relationship with the union trades as another important piece of the puzzle. “The collaboration and partnering between the general contractors, design builder and union trade partners built a strong contribution,” he says. “The union’s role is supporting the project with skills and qualified labor to build the job, and their role is important.”

Meyer hopes the vision in Kansas City inspires other cities and airport operators to consider the progressive features MCI is implementing and expand upon them even more.

“We’re really proud of the plan’s accessibility and inclusivity,” Meyer emphasizes. “We are leaning into it. My hope is that this project doesn’t only deliver an accessible and inclusive terminal in this region, but also serves as a launching point for other airport terminal projects to move beyond what we have been able to do and make other passengers feel cared for.”

MCI is planning to showcase its accomplishments with a grand opening celebration for the new terminal in March 2023.

Why MCI?

The three-letter identifier for Kansas City International Airport, MCI, leaves many passengers scratching their heads. They insist it should be KCI, a more literal abbreviation. But there’s a logical reason it is not.

Decades ago, the airport was called Mid-Continent International before it was a commercial airport, and MCI was its three-letter designator. When the name changed to Kansas City International in 1972 when it opened to passengers and cargo, the airport kept the original designator; and it remains MCI to this day. That’s partly because International Air Transportation Association (IATA) rules do not allow U.S. airports to use codes beginning with K or W, and there is also a small airport in Indonesia already using the call letters KCI.



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