Passengers on second flight become first to fly out of new Wichita airport

Passengers on United Flight 6399 board the flight that became the first to depart the new Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport. (June 3, 2015)
Passengers on United Flight 6399 board the flight that became the first to depart the new Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport. (June 3, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

The new terminal at Wichita’s Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport had a hiccup on its first scheduled departure early Wednesday morning.

Passengers at Gate 6 of the new terminal were in good spirits at 4:30 a.m., smiling, laughing and allowing local 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 lights in the plane.

Pat McCollom, project manager with the Wichita Airport Authority, paced with a cellphone to his ear. He had been overseeing the entire move-in process for the past few days. McCollom then ran down onto the tarmac to inspect what the problem was.

Gate 6 grew quiet.

Then 5 a.m. came, and still no power on the plane.

Someone happened to notice people were 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.

Rachael Case, a passenger on the United flight to Chicago, was the last to board the plane. Case, 18, was headed to Virginia to visit family, she said.

She said the airport “would be better if it weren’t so early,” adding that “it would be nicer for someone who was from here, but it’s pretty.”

By the time the United flight left and made history at the new terminal, the American flight had been powered up and was taxiing away from the terminal.

Crews had to bring over an auxiliary power supply to get power flowing to the plane, an American spokeswoman said.

Pat McCollom, project manager with the Wichita Airport Authority, explains the circumstances that led to the first scheduled flight at the new terminal not leaving on time. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)

After the plane had left, McCollom said the electrical issue was not a problem with the terminal’s jet bridges; rather, he said, the problem was with the plane.

Essentially, the jet bridges provide a certain baseline of power to the plane, and “under normal operating conditions,” that level of power should get the plane started, McCollom said. However, if the plane’s power level is lower than normal, the jet bridge will not provide enough, he said.

“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 has had “some little glitches,” but that it is “all 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. And then 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. “We paid enough for it.”

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 flyers.”

Neufeld and her family had done a TSA pre-screening, so they did not have to wait in line Wednesday morning.

For those that did not do the pre-screening option, traffic was still flowing fairly quickly through the TSA checkpoint, with its new machines that require the passenger to put their hands behind their head while standing in a tube-like scanner.

“I’ve been very impressed with TSA,” McCollom said. “They’ve been working nonstop, and I think it’s fabulous how, overnight, they were able to transform that space.”

City and state officials plan to do an official ribbon-cutting ceremony at 9:45 a.m. Wednesday, when the terminal’s first arrival is scheduled to come in.

Reach Matt Riedl at 316-268-6660 or mriedl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RiedlMatt.

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