Wichita’s airport celebrates anniversary as new terminal waits in the wings

04/08/2014 12:20 PM

08/08/2014 10:23 AM

It has been 60 years since the first commercial flight took off from Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, at what was then called Wichita Municipal Airport.

Men wore suit coats and ties, and women wore dresses and gloves to catch flights offered by Braniff Airways, Continental Air Lines, Trans World Airlines and two feeder airlines.

“Life was so much simpler in those days,” said Dan Poole, who worked at the Wichita airport 32 years.

“We didn’t have any security to speak of in those days. We didn’t have any need for it.”

The airport celebrates six decades of commercial service on Tuesday. But it will be its final year.

Construction of a new, two-story terminal building and parking garage is underway. The goal is to open about a year from now: March 31, 2015.

The airport is also slated for a new name after the Wichita City Council voted to call it the Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport to honor the former president. It is subject to approval by the Wichita Airport Authority this week. If approved, the change will take effect with the building’s opening.

Very few airports have terminal buildings as old as the one operating in Wichita, said Victor White, executive director of airports at the Wichita Airport Authority. Many airports, he said, talk about replacing their terminals when they are about half that age.

“We have nursed this building along from a maintenance standpoint,” White said. “It’s become functionally obsolete.

“The building is expensive to operate. It’s expensive to maintain. A lot of the mechanical systems aren’t even made any more because they’re so old. Our staff has done an exceptional job.”

The early years

Tim Bonnell Sr. has fond memories of coming out to the airport with his parents to watch planes take off and land. They would go upstairs to what was then an observation deck, he said.

He was there at an open house in 1959 or 1960 when stars of the popular radio and TV series “Sky King” brought their airplane to the airport.

Bonnell said he learned to fly at age 19 and took his checkride to earn his license at the Wichita airport in 1971 in a Cessna 150.

As head of PIM Insurance, now a division of IMA, he’s been a tenant on airport property for more than three decades. Before that, he worked for the former Don Flower Associates there.

A gate next to his building allowed pilots to fly in, taxi to the building, get out and go inside the office, Bonnell said. Today, the sidewalk is there, but the gate is gone.

“It was just a smaller, simpler airport,” Bonnell said.

“There were a lot of jack rabbits hopping around there in the center area.”

Poole said he came to Wichita in 1975 from St. Louis to manage Dobbs House, which later became HMS Host. He planned on staying six months. He stayed 32 years.

“It’s because of the wonderful people that are in this community,” Poole said. “I made a lot of good friends out here.”

Dobbs House operated a gift shop, restaurant and a dining room. It also catered to the airlines serving Wichita.

“We put meals on the planes,” Poole said.

TWA and Continental had extensive meal services for passengers with china and silver, he said.

“It was just such a nice time back in those days,” Poole said.

Wichita Mid-Continent Airport – it acquired that name in 1973 – replaced the city’s original municipal airport, which opened in 1929 southeast of Wichita. That airport’s terminal building is now home to the Kansas Aviation Museum.

The current airport site near Ridge Road and Kellogg was selected after the Air Force decided to open a training base following the outbreak of the Korean War and chose the original airport site. The base became McConnell Air Force Base.

The new airport opened first to general aviation in 1953, and then to commercial flights in 1954.

At the time it opened, the brand-new terminal was hailed as an “ultramodern structure, streamlined for comfort, efficiency and functional operation.”

It had a separate seven-story control tower connected by a concourse. To reach the terminal apron, passengers passed through one of two tunnels extending from beneath the lobby out to the gates and outside to the planes.

Cessna Aircraft and Learjet also opened manufacturing plants next to the airfield.

The terminal building has been remodeled several times over the years, The last major renovation and expansion took place in 1989.

In 1954, the annual budget for the airport totaled $314,549. The 2014 budget expects $19.8 million in revenue, including $7.9 million in rent, $3.8 million from net parking revenue, $2.6 million from rental car commissions, $3.3 million from landing fee charges, and $1.3 million from other activity-based income.

In the first full year of operation, the airport attracted more than 221,000 passengers. Last year, more than 1.5 million passengers flew out of Mid-Continent.

The airport today is served by five airlines: Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines.

Gateway to Wichita

Next door to the current terminal building, workers are busy constructing the new state-of-the-art terminal with a wall of glass, tall ceilings, numerous skylights and a shape resembling that of an airplane’s swept wing. Work on a four-level parking garage also is underway.

“I think it’s going to end up being a facility that the community will be extremely proud of,” White said. “It is modern. It is high tech. It is light and airy. And it will have a good feel to it.”

The facility will emphasize Wichita’s position as the Air Capital of the World, a city that has built more airplanes than anywhere else in the world. It will have features that evoke a feeling of aviation.

“It enhances that first and last impression of Wichita for visitors here,” said Patrick McCollom, the terminal’s program manager. McCollom is with AECOM, a private engineering company managing construction of the terminal.

The new terminal was approved after much debate on whether to remodel the current facility or build new. Work began in October 2012.

“The cost difference was minimal between the two choices,” White said.

Remodeling would have been inconvenient to the airlines and travelers and taken much longer, he said.

“There was a lot of analysis and thought that went into the decision back in those days,” White said. “A lot of it dealt with building codes, fire codes, electrical codes. The building would have had to have been brought up to current code status.”

Much thought also was given to the new building, which will be environmentally friendly and efficient to use for the public, the airlines and security, Wise said.

Inside the entry on the first floor, ticket counters will take up an expansive area on the right and baggage claim will be located on the left, a set-up similar to that of the current terminal. A retail store and concessions will also be located there.

Passengers then will use the stairs, escalator or elevators to ascend to the second floor and go through an expansive security screening area and on to one of 12 gates.

The second floor will have a meet and greet area for visitors featuring seven displays highlighting Wichita’s long aviation history from its barnstormer days to today. The upstairs also will feature two food courts, a coffee bar and retail areas.

What the public won’t see will be large areas designed for ever increasing airline operational and security practices, McCollom said.

Airlines and the Transportation Security Administration will have room to operate efficiently. It will be equipped with baggage handling systems with explosives detection security screening.

With today’s security regulations, the airport has to keep up with the times, said Poole who toured the new facility last week.

“All the facilities are laid out better, where they’re more practical,” Poole said. “The way you’re able to move goods and materials into the terminal where it can be inspected by TSA and distributed within the terminal, everything is different.

“I’ve run many airports. You have to have good airports that function well to serve the community because it drives the community and business.”

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