A Terminal for All

A Terminal for All
Kristen Rindfleisch
Published in: 

While vacations and other trips may be enjoyable, air travel itself can sometimes be stressful and difficult—especially for passengers with reduced mobility, visual impairment, hearing loss, etc. Travelers on the autism spectrum, those with dementia or other “hidden disabilities” and members of the LGTBQ community also often encounter extra challenges. The new terminal at Kansas City International Airport (MCI) is designed to be as accessible and inclusive as possible—for every guest.

Why did the Kansas City Missouri Aviation Department make this a major focus? “Because it was the right thing to do,” explains Justin Meyer, deputy director of Aviation – Marketing and Air Service Development.

It was also an official objective established by former Kansas City Mayor Sly James and the city council. In 2018, they issued a resolution that challenged the Aviation Department to build the world’s most accessible airport terminal, and set a $1.5 billion budget for the massive initiative. With that, the Aviation Department clearly understood that the community wanted MCI’s new terminal to be easy to use. “We really leaned into it with our designer SOM [Skidmore, Owings & Merrill], the primary architect,” Meyer recalls. Officials even asked, “What would the terminal look like if we really sought to make accessibility the No. 1 priority?’”


Enhancing Accessibility & Inclusivity

Location: New Terminal at Kansas City Int’l Airport

Construction: 2019–Feb. 2023

Key Components: Air travel simulation; all ADA-compliant ticketing counters; universally accessible indoor play area; sensory room; meditation/quiet room; multi-user all-gender restrooms; universal changing tables; nursing rooms

Terminal Developer: Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate

Prime Architect: 
Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill

Jet Bridges: JBT

Back-Painted Interior Glass: 

Cost for Travel Simulator: 
$750,000+ (design, equipment, systems & construction)

Audio, Video & Technology for Travel Simulation Experience: 
Dimensional Innovations

Electrical, Drywall, Flooring, Glasswork & Tile Work for Travel Simulation Experience: DI Build

Subcontractor Architect: 
DRAW Architecture

Lighting Design: Lightworks

Key Benefit: Making air travel accessible & inclusive for more people

The Aviation Department worked closely with project architects and designers to consider the widest possible range of travelers and guests. “Creating an inclusive and accessible terminal meant scrutinizing every aspect of the design,” explains Jordan Pierce, an associate principal with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. “We asked ourselves how we could improve our approach, how we could exceed standards.”

The design team met with thousands of Kansas City residents in community meetings to understand their priorities for the new terminal. It also met with various advocacy groups, including parents of children with autism, caregivers for people with dementia, the LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce and others. “Through these sessions, we heard a variety of suggestions on how to make the terminal more inclusive, accessible and welcoming,” says Pierce.

ADA as a Forethought

Early on, the project team decided to use the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a starting point, not a finish line. As a result, every check-in desk, gate desk and information kiosk are accessible to customers in wheelchairs. And every piece of millwork in the building is set to ADA height.

In contrast, many airports have only one ADA-compliant ticketing location. While this approach may meet federal requirements, it can also make some travelers feel as if they are an afterthought. “We wanted that touchpoint to be positive for every traveler, so they feel thought of and cared for intentionally—no matter what,” Meyer explains. 

The new terminal also features gently sloping floors rather than ramps to ease the journey through the terminal. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill minimized level changes throughout the terminal and worked to create an efficient plan, with minimal walking distance—a strategy especially appreciated by guests with reduced mobility. 

Rooms for Respite

With the inherent hustle and bustle of air travel, airport terminals can be loud and overwhelming. At MCI, travelers who need a break from the crowds, gate announcements and other constant stimuli have two options: a sensory room and a meditation/quiet room.

The sensory room offers passengers on the autism spectrum and their travel companions a private place to de-stress before or after flights. It is stocked with specialty toys for children and outfitted with surfaces and lighting effects to help calm the senses. 

The meditation/quiet room was developed in cooperation with the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council to be all-inclusive. In addition to providing a space for religious worship, the room can be used by secular travelers who are simply seeking respite, people with dementia and their caretakers, those wishing to meditate, etc. 

Details in the sensory and meditation/quiet rooms were heavily influenced by input from local residents, advocacy groups and airport staff. Again, the goal was inclusiveness—or, as Meyer puts it, making everyone feel thought of by focusing on “humans and hearts.”

Boarding and Deplaning

As designers incorporated accessible and inclusive features into the building plans, the Aviation Department was inspired to improve basic airport-specific infrastructure such as passenger boarding bridges.

“It was really motivating to see how in every step of the process, there’s a way to do things in a better way,” Meyer remarks. The Aviation Department opted for glass boarding bridges from JBT, which offer passengers a climate-controlled environment when boarding and deplaning. The glass structures also offer relief to travelers with anxiety or claustrophobia when compared to traditional opaque boarding bridges. “That’s a horrible experience to stand in a narrowing tube with no air movement,” muses Meyer.

The glass boarding bridges at the new terminal provide a much better experience, he adds. “It’s like you’re stepping outside—with the comforts of not being in the rain or cold or heat.”

Inclusive Restrooms

In addition to traditional single-gender restrooms, each concourse in MCI’s new terminal has an all-gender restroom with multiple stalls and a family restroom equipped with a motorized, adult-sized changing table.

The Aviation Department determined that broadening the available options was a priority to improve accessibility and inclusion. Each stall in the multi-user all-gender restrooms features a toilet, full-height partitions for privacy and security, strobe and sprinkler. Benches within the all-gender restrooms provide a place for people to wait for their travel companions. Beyond accommodating LGBTQ guests, these restrooms are also useful for parents traveling with opposite-gender children who are not old enough to use gender-specific restrooms alone or for adults traveling with an elderly parent who might need assistance—all regardless of gender. “By combining the stall count of two single-gender restrooms, we reduced wait time,” Pierce adds.

Meyers reports that response to the additional restroom options and other inclusive features has been overwhelmingly positive. “Watching people utilize the building and watching people experience the touchpoints and the thoughtfulness of things has been really rewarding,” he says. “To see how people have been kind of empowered by thoughtfulness and care has been straight to the heart—rewarding and reinforcing.”

All restrooms (including single-gender) have added features, such as red and green lights to indicate whether stalls are occupied or unoccupied. And all stalls are larger than required, with outward-swinging doors to provide room for passengers to maneuver more easily with their bags. Every set of restrooms has a dedicated nursing room, a family restroom and a room for changing clothes, complete with a bench and full-length mirror.

Pierce notes that the difference between building single-gender and all-gender restrooms is negligible—basically, a few extra inches of partition per stall to create greater privacy. In fact, all-gender restrooms can be more cost-effective. “By combining single-gender restrooms, redundant circulation space is reduced,” he explains. “Additionally, the level of service is increased as passengers will no longer see long lines at the women’s room while stalls remain free in the men’s.”

Practice Facilities

To help alleviate the fear of flying that plagues some passengers, MCI worked with Kansas-based Dimensional Innovations to create the Kansas City Air Travel Experience. This special amenity includes a mock gate area, a simulated passenger boarding bridge and an authentic aircraft cabin created from the front section of a decommissioned Airbus A-321 fuselage. The experience simulates the entire airport/air travel experience, from check-in through landing, including a 15-minute simulation in the A-321 cabin, to help anxious passengers become more comfortable flying. Travelers with sensory issues, autism spectrum disorders and auditory and/or visual impairments often benefit greatly from experiencing specific elements of the travel process before their actual flights.

“All parts of the simulated cabin (seats, windows, overhead bins) are true-to-life aircraft parts,” comments Weston Owen, senior public relations and communications manager for Dimensional Innovations.

The company has created immersive experiences for various audiences around the world, but this is the first flight simulation it has developed. DI Build, its sister company, provided the electrical, drywall, flooring, glasswork and tile work.

By using a reassembled aircraft fuselage and building mock airport elements, MCI allows passengers with aversions, fears or challenges to practice the various parts of air travel that can prove to be problematic. “The Kansas City Air Travel Experience provides relief and comfort for what can be an otherwise overwhelming situation, creating peace of mind to help overcome any reservations or fears,” Owen says. “Our team at Dimensional Innovations partnered with MCI to ensure that all travelers, regardless of background or ability, could experience travel comfortably and with confidence.”

The simulation sessions, which are booked with the airport’s Customer Experience team, begin with passengers going through a real TSA checkpoint and using a kiosk to check their bags and print custom boarding passes created just for the experience. They can then practice proceeding down the mock boarding bridge hallway, which has floor-to-ceiling graphics that mimic the views from MCI’s new glass boarding bridges. From there, participants enter the full-size cabin of an Airbus A-321, locate their seats, stow carry-on items, buckle their seatbelts and experience a simulated flight.

A 55-inch touchscreen display where the jump seat would usually be shows a video of a flight attendant performing the safety demonstration and guides participants through the entire flight experience. Videos running on 360-degree displays mounted outside the cabin windows provide views of ground operations at MCI, followed by footage of pushing back, taxiing and takeoff, in-air flight and landing. Dimensional Innovations created these videos by utilizing Unreal Engine, a computer graphics game engine developed by Epic Games. “DI really led the way on making the technology pop,” Meyer raves.

To add the realism of roaring engines, moving wing mechanisms, screeching tires, pilot voiceovers and other sounds, ambient audio reverberates throughout the entire experience. There are also the usual in-flight chimes and announcements, like a ding at 10,000 feet, the okay to take out laptops and the seatbelt sign turning on and off—sights and sounds that can be jarring to some passengers.

Meyer gives Dimensional Innovations high marks for the custom audio, video and lighting it helped create. “DI really did a great job,” he says. “They did an amazing thing here in Kansas City.”

During their practice experience, passengers can read a special safety card with information about the Airbus A-321 used in the simulation, complete with extra details such as the airplane serial number, where it was made and the airlines that operated it.

“Air travel is amazing; it’s the closest thing we have to time travel,” Meyer remarks, adding that MCI’s simulator experience helps people who might otherwise not feel comfortable enough to fly. “All the things that airplanes allow us to do, places to see, families to reconnect with, experiences to have—that’s the goal of this amenity. If we can make air travel accessible for people, that’s life-changing.”

Owen notes that Dimensional Innovations can develop similar simulations for other airports. “We’re always ready to create remarkable, memorable experiences for businesses of all types. If the opportunity arose to work with another airport or facility on this type of element, we’d definitely be interested!”

Heartwarming Results

The Kansas City Aviation Department is justifiably proud of MCI’s accessible, inclusive terminal design and amenities. “We wanted to raise the bar, but we also recognize that it’s hard if you’re not building a whole new terminal,” Meyer remarks. “We had a blank sheet of paper to put all this stuff in.”

That said, he hopes other airports will outdo what MCI has done. “I want the next airport to come in and see what we did and move it further,” he says. “Because in the end, the customer wins. We’re caring for people, no matter where they’re flying from.”

Pierce reflects on the power that airports have to help open the world for people. “Their journeys begin and end in the buildings we design,” he remarks. “If those terminals are not accessible, we close off the possibility of these experiences to vast segments of the public. Even the smallest changes can make all the difference to individuals.”

During MCI’s open house this February, the public was invited to check out the new terminal. Aviation Department personnel answered questions and also received a lot of positive feedback about the inclusive and accessibility features.

One couple was especially interested in the all-gender restrooms and shared that their youngest child is preparing to transition to another gender. They had no idea that kind of amenity would be available at their hometown airport and were thrilled to see it. The couple told Meyer that MCI is “caring for our kids in ways that we didn’t even know they could be cared for.”


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