Kansas Citys New Airport Terminal Is a Glimpse at the Future of Air Travel
Clark Weitz Clarkson
Air Travel

Kansas City’s New Airport Terminal Is a Glimpse at the Future of Air Travel

The sleek $1.5 billion terminal offers a sensory room, gender neutral bathrooms, a plane simulator for neurodivergent travelers, and much more.

Just two weeks after celebrating its Super Bowl LVII win, Kansas City is giving locals another major reason to beam with pride: a shiny new $1.5 billion airport terminal.

After more than five years of planning and construction, Kansas City International Airport (MCI)’s single terminal officially opens on February 28—replacing the airport’s outdated trio of Brutalist concrete terminals, which had been in operation since 1972. The original MCI opened about a month before the FAA started mandating physical screenings of passengers in January 1973 (aka the dawn of metal detectors and baggage scanners), so the airport never really made logistical sense in terms of security processes, restaurant placement, and square footage.

The new terminal, however, is exactly what you would expect from an airport in 2023. There are separate levels for curbside departures and arrivals. There are Clear kiosks and designated TSA PreCheck lines. A Delta Sky Club is available for folks with lengthy layovers. And aside from a Dunkin’ Donuts counter at the main entrance, all of the restaurants and bars can be found after the security checkpoints. (Seemingly basic features, yes, but ones you wouldn’t have found in the three old terminals.) 

Art installations in the new terminal

Clark Weitz Clarkson

Inclusivity at the forefront

But the upgraded MCI does a lot more than check a few standard boxes—it shows what an airport should look like beyond 2023. Throughout the entire design process, the Kansas City Aviation Department worked closely with local organizations like The Whole Person, Variety KC, and Dementia Friendly KC to ensure the terminal was as absolutely inclusive as possible. (“We considered ADA regulations to be just the starting point,” said Justin Meyer, deputy director of aviation at the Kansas City Aviation Department, during a media tour last week.)

Every information and check-in counter is set at ADA-compliant heights; restrooms feature adult changing tables (along with baby changing tables); and visual paging boards alert deaf passengers of any flight changes. Alongside gendered restroom options, there is also an “all-gender” restroom in the terminal with extra features to ensure safety and privacy like floor-to-ceiling partitions between stalls—a great option not only for gender-nonconforming passengers, but also anyone traveling with a caregiver of a different gender who doesn’t want to separate.

The terminal also offers 10 nursing rooms, service animal relief areas, all-inclusive play areas for children, and a sensory room—a calming space for neurodivergent travelers. But perhaps the coolest new feature is the Kansas City Air Travel Experience Simulation, a room that lets travelers walk through every part of the flying experience before actually heading to their gate—including scanning tickets, walking down the jetbridge, stowing their suitcases, and watching the in-flight safety videos. (The designers even brought in a retired Airbus to use in the simulation.) Whether it’s a family traveling with neurodivergent children or a solo traveler with aerophobia, anyone is welcome to book the experience online before their travel day.

Art installations and barbecue restaurants

The new MCI terminal is clearly more than just a pretty face—but the sheer curb appeal is an undeniable selling point. Those aforementioned concrete terminals have given way to a clean and modern million-square-foot structure filled with permanent art exhibits and outposts of beloved Kansas City restaurants and shops, not to mention warm terrazzo floors and sleek walls made from Missouri limestone. 

Roughly $5.6 million of the new terminal’s budget was set aside for artwork, with impressive sculptures from international artists scattered throughout the main entrance and paintings from local artists positioned in the concourses. The star attraction is “The Air Up There,” an installation in the ticketing hall by the renowned American artist Nick Cave (a Kansas City Art Institute alum), which includes 15,000 colorful metal spinners stretching across most of the vast ceiling—and which sways lightly in the natural breeze that flows through the doors.

The new terminal has 40 gates, nine more than the old facility.

Clark Weitz Clarkson

A bit of local flavor 

Once through security, passengers are spoiled for choice in terms of dining and shopping options (a vast change from the old terminals, where you’d have to hope that the lone Starbucks counter would be open at the time of your flight). A Made in KC Marketplace lets you load up on locally made souvenirs while beloved Kansas City institutions like Parisi Coffee, Boulevard Brewing Company, and Meat Mitch BBQ let you savor the signature tastes of the city one last time before you board your flight. 

“The terminal really shows off what our community looks like,” said Jessica Palm, VP of Marketing at the Kansas City Area Development Council, during the media tour of the airport. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to forget you’re in Kansas City when you’re here—and not just because the smell of barbecue smokers often wafts down the concourse halls.

The building has a polished feel that will impress the international jet set, but it also has charming nods to its home city at every turn—the Missouri blue birds hidden in the art installations, the in-laid floor mosaics salvaged from one of the old terminals, the bottles of local barbecue sauce for sale next to magazines and airplane snacks

Looking toward the future

As of 1 a.m. CST on February 28, the terminal will immediately begin operating out of 40 gates (up from the old airport’s 31), with 150 daily departures that include increased frequencies from Delta and Southwest Airlines. Alongside the new infrastructure, MCI will also begin operating domestic routes that had paused during the pandemic to U.S. cities like Indianapolis and San Antonio and already has plans to launch a new route to Long Beach, California, in March.

With a handful of major sporting events that promise to divert even more attention toward Kansas City—including the NFL Draft in 2023 and the World Cup in 2026—this new terminal couldn't come at a better time. “With thousands of global visitors coming to the Kansas City region in the next few years to experience the 2023 NFL Draft, 2026 FIFA World Cup, and more, the new terminal matches the current momentum of the market,” says Ashley McDonald, managing director of KC Global Design. 

And with a world-class airport to complement the spotlight, it’s clear that Kansas City isn't just ready for her close-up—she’s already thoroughly enjoying it.