Van Kim, who was traveling from Dallas to his home in Phoenix on Wednesday, made sure he was among the first to arrive at Wichita’s new terminal at Eisenhower National Airport.
“I purposely detoured here because of what I heard about the grand opening,” Kim said. “This is tremendous.”
The first plane to arrive at the new terminal – a Southwest Airlines flight that landed a few minutes early at about 9:35 a.m. – was greeted on the taxiway with an archway of water from local fire crews. Passengers walked through one of the new glass jet bridges into Gate 4, where their arrival was hailed with noisemakers, cheers, free T-shirts, luggage tags and handshakes from the mayor and other city officials.
“What a special day. You can tell by all of the grins,” Mayor Jeff Longwell said a few minutes before the first arrival, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Gate 5.
“Today we usher in a new era for air travel at Wichita ICT. … It just feels like, as a city, we truly are all grown up now.”
The grand opening of the $225 million terminal was about a decade in the making, said City Manager Robert Layton. Five airlines – Allegiant, American, Delta, Southwest and United – plan to make 72 flights daily from the new terminal.
“You couldn’t ask for a better first impression of our community,” Layton said. “I hope, as residents get to see it, they have a sense of pride. It’s their building, and I hope that people say this represents who we are.”
On Wednesday, Wichita’s airport code – ICT – stood for “It Changes Today.” Employees wore blue T-shirts with the phrase emblazoned on the front. Lines at ticket counters, security and baggage claim seemed to move smoothly, although more people than usual stopped to take photos or ask for directions.
Pat McCollom, project manager for the new terminal, had been working since 7:30 a.m. Tuesday to oversee the transition from the old terminal at what was Mid-Continent Airport to the new terminal. Despite a slight glitch with the security lanes, “I thought it went very well,” he said.
“It was almost magical how they put it all together.”
Chris Arnold, owner of the River City Brewing Co. in Old Town, spent all day Tuesday getting ready for its first day at the airport location. The restaurant, on the second floor of the new terminal, opened at 5 a.m. Wednesday for breakfast. By 9 a.m., it had served its first Bloody Mary.
“It feels fantastic. We opened with virtually no glitches,” Arnold said. “It felt great to open today and know it’s all happening.”
Despite Wednesday’s grand opening, work on the new terminal continues. A “wet paint” sign was posted next to one entrance, and a backhoe worked furiously on landscaping at the bottom of the parking garage. Several men on ladders set up advertising displays in the terminal hallway.
Jay Brainard, federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration in Kansas, said officers appreciated the new terminal’s additional space and new tubelike body scanners, which are more efficient than metal detectors. Late Wednesday morning, one body scan machine was not working – an agent said it needed to be calibrated – so passengers were directed through the old metal detectors.
A voice over the intercom greeted passengers: “Welcome to the new Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport. Whether you’re coming or going, we’re glad you’re here.”
Brainard, who has experienced technology switches but not a full terminal switch, said he and other security officers “couldn’t be more thrilled” with the new amenities.
“This is probably one of the smoothest transitions I’ve ever seen and one of the most exciting,” he said.
Katie Lady of Abilene flew out of Wichita for the first time Wednesday. She usually flies out of Kansas City, but Wichita’s spacious new terminal “makes me want to come back,” she said. “I definitely would fly out of Wichita again because of the experience.”
Jan Harris, a retired American Airlines employee from Knoxville, Tenn., flies into Wichita about once a month to see her son, who works for Cessna. She arranged her trip this week to be part of flights into the old terminal and out of the new one.
“I like flying. I wanted to be here the first day,” Harris said. She passed the time eating free opening-day doughnuts and taking pictures of the terminal with her cellphone. She said she loves the shorter distance from the check-in counters to the gates. “It’s quite a place.”
Second flight becomes first to depart
Earlier on Wednesday, the new terminal experienced a hiccup on its first scheduled departure.
Passengers at Gate 6 were in good spirits at 4:30 a.m., smiling, laughing and allowing media to do interviews.
Then an American spokeswoman told the assembled crowd that crews were still working to get power to the plane and that the new jet bridge was not supplying adequate power to turn on the plane’s lights.
McCollom, the project manager, paced with a cellphone to his ear, then ran down onto the tarmac.
Gate 6 grew quiet.
Then 5 a.m. came, and still no power on the plane.
People began boarding on the second scheduled flight for Wednesday morning, a United plane bound for Chicago, and all the media attention went to Gate 8.
Suddenly the passengers on Gate 6 were no longer going to be the first to leave the new terminal.
By the time the United flight left, making history at the new terminal, the American flight had been powered up and was taxiing away.
Crews had to bring over an auxiliary power supply to get power flowing to the plane, an American spokeswoman said.
McCollom said the electrical issue was not a problem with the terminal’s jet bridges but with the plane.
Essentially, the jet bridges provide a baseline of power to the plane, enough to get it started under normal operating conditions, he said. But if the plane’s power level is lower than normal, the jet bridge will not provide enough.
“This is an issue that happens occasionally all the time,” McCollom said. “You build the jet bridges so that, under normal operating conditions, they operate fine, but if there’s a power shortage in the plane, they need an extra boost.”
McCollom said the terminal had some little glitches, but that was to be expected.
Those glitches included things such as the escalators not working for passengers of the earliest flights and lights operating on a timer in the building overnight. A door to the outside would not open for a while.
Otherwise, the transition went fairly smoothly overnight as crews carted computers and other equipment over to the new terminal.
When passengers began arriving – and some crashed on the new terminal’s seats as early as midnight Wednesday – they were impressed with the new terminal.
“I want to see just how state-of-the-art and really nice it is,” said Carl Storm, a passenger on the Dallas flight who was headed to Las Vegas for a honeymoon.
Kristina Clark, 23, was heading out on the Dallas flight to New York City as a graduation present. She recently graduated from Wichita State University with a degree in marketing, she said.
“I didn’t even know this was going to be open when I got the ticket,” she said. “When I got here, I said, ‘Are we still in Wichita?’ ... It’s just much more modern, spacious, and it’ll be more like a hub than the old one.”
Gwen Neufeld was traveling with her mother, Priscilla, and two daughters, Elisabeth, 11, and Katherine, 9, on the Dallas flight.
The only thing she – and Elisabeth and Katherine, for that matter – is going to miss about the old terminal: the bagel shop.
“(The new terminal) does have the new-car smell, but I don’t smell the bagels,” Neufeld said. “I think it’s safe to say we were frequent fliers.”
Contributing: Oliver Morrison and Jean Hays of The Eagle