Plane Speaking

Kansas City International Airport

Kansas City International Airport

Kansas City International Airport

Kansas City International Airport

On November 11, 1972, the Kansas City International Airport officially opened for commercial service. The airport replaced the existing Mid-Continent Airport at the same location. Twenty years before, the 1951 flood destroyed many Fairfax Airport facilities on the west side of the Missouri River and compromised operations at the downtown Municipal Airport. With the area’s two main airports shut down, Kansas City began planning a new airport 20 miles north of the flooded city.

Opened in 1956, Mid-Continent Airport served as a hub for Braniff Airlines and boasted Trans World Airlines’s (TWA) main overhaul base, but the runways and terminals remained undersized to serve as Kansas City’s main airport. Most passenger traffic to Kansas City continued to land at Municipal Airport, where large, fast jets had difficulty landing on the small runways and taking off without hitting the skyscrapers.

In hopes of increasing flight capacity in and out of the city, TWA encouraged the expansion of Mid-Continent Airport. Proponents of the expansion thought Kansas City had much to gain from a new airport, especially considering the city still had important ties to TWA, which originated in Kansas City in the 1930s, employed more workers than any other business in town, and was among the most prestigious airlines in the world.

Built at a cost of $250 million, the ambitious airport design drawn up by the architectural firm Kivett and Myers reflected TWA’s grandiose ambitions. In land area the airport was the third largest in the United States. It featured an innovative “Drive to Your Gate” design in which each circular terminal allowed passengers to park nearby and walk roughly 75 feet to their gate. Only flat farmland surrounded the airport and flooding posed no risk on the high plateau, making it a practical location for large new jets such as the Boeing 747.

Less convenient were the 20 mile drives into the city and the security checkpoints required at each cluster of gates rather than one for the entire terminal. Another drawback was that TWA had already relocated its central U.S. passenger hub from Kansas City to St. Louis during the 1960s, which reduced traffic through Kansas City. Although several of these flaws restricted the airport’s enormous potential, all agreed that it was a unique design and a source of local pride when it opened. Today the Federal Aviation Administration considers the airport to be mid-sized in terms of passenger traffic and still among the largest in the country when measured by usable acreage. In addition, the old TWA overhaul facility still provides nearly 800 jobs and now maintains aircraft owned by American Airlines, which bought out TWA in 2001.

Correction:The original version of this article incorrectly stated the date of KCI's public opening as November 21, 1972. The error has been corrected.

Read the full biographical sketch of Clarence Kivett; architect whose firm, Kivett and Myers, designed the Kansas City International Airport’s terminals, control towers, and administrative building, prepared by Susan Jezak Ford, Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library.

View images of airports in Kansas City that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

Check out the following books about Kansas City aviation:

Visit the National Airline History Museum, Hangar 9 at the Kansas City, Missouri Downtown Airport, 201 NW Lou Holland Drive, Kansas City, Missouri 64116, (816) 421-3401.

Continue researching local aviation history using archival material from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

References:

George R. Bauer, A Century of Kansas City Aviation History: The Dreamers and the Doers (Kansas City, MO: Historic Preservation Press, 1999), 34-39, 121-130.

Brian Burnes, High & Rising: The 1951 Kansas City Flood (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 2001), 82-89, 117.

Dory DeAngelo, What About Kansas City!: A Historical Handbook (Kansas City, MO: Two Lane Press, 1995), 72.

Julius A. Karash, Rick Montgomery, and Doug Weaver, TWA: Kansas City's Hometown Airline (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 2001), 40-50.

Jason Roe
Historical date: 
Saturday, November 11, 1972

About the Author

Jason Roe is a digital history specialist at the Kansas City Public Library, content manager and editor for the Civil War on the Western Border website, and the author of the Library's popular "This Week in Kansas City History" column. Prior to joining the Library, he earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012. While at KU, he was named the 2011-2012 Richard and Jeanette Sias Graduate Fellow at the Hall Center for the Humanities, and he received the History Department's 2012 George L. Anderson Award for Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation for his work, "From the Impoverished to the Entitled: The Experience and Meaning of Old Age in America since the 1950s." He enjoys tackling a wide variety of projects relating to U.S. and local history.

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