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The new technology preserves the speed, convenience KC air travelers have come to expect

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published by Kansas City PBS/Flatland, a member of the KC Media Collective, which also includes Startland News, KCUR 89.3, American Public Square, The Kansas City Beacon, and Missouri Business Alert.

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You land at Kansas City International Airport half an hour early.

It’s been a mixed blessing up until now.

You stand on the highway twiddling your thumbs and waiting for an open gate.

Next week, that will be history as KCI becomes one of the few airports boasting cutting-edge technology that transforms the final moments of aircraft movements on the ground with dazzling software technology that would make a gamer drool.

That’s not the only wonder awaiting Kansas City travelers when the new $1.5 billion KCI terminal opens its doors on February 28.

Busy business travelers will be amazed when their last-minute search for a parking space is made easier by an ingenious new ‘red-green light’ signaling system that will quickly direct them to a vacant space.

Those bathroom visits to hell that left you squeezing your bladder on a line that ran back through Starbucks — that too will be fixed. The bathrooms will be more spacious. Occupancy of the stall will be identified by ‘red lights’ and ‘green lights’ just like the parking spaces in the huge new car park.

As the three-ring pretzel terminal that was your gateway to Kansas City for 51 years leaves, Kansas City will be wowed by a new gateway that will boast new technologies that will go hand in hand with public art, fountains, shops and fresh paint and carpet.

Topping the list is a $7.6 million virtual airplane ramp control system acquired by Saab, the Swedish automaker and industrial giant.

“Saab sees its digital tower solution as ‘green solutions’ and generally believes that they cost less to build and maintain than traditional ‘brick-and-mortar’ towers,” according to spokesman Kevin Borland.

Robert Brown, director of product management and strategy at Saab, in Syracuse, New York, said this Saab technology is being implemented at Orlando Airport and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. Rival companies have similar technology at perhaps one or two additional airports out of the country’s 5,217 public airports, he said.

In other words, KCI will stand out.

Here’s how it will work. Two 14-camera digital camera towers will be erected at either end of the new terminal with commanding 360-degree views of aircraft taxi approaches, Brown said.

The system will provide information to ramp controllers who will have greater knowledge of what is happening around the aircraft.

“It will reduce radio calls, things will move more smoothly, planes will get in and out faster,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of choreography that happens when a plane stops.”

For example, vehicles that move planes in and out of gates will be deployed more efficiently.

Baggage can be unloaded faster, Brown agreed, saying, “Maybe…hopefully. Everything should work better.”

Planes that arrive early or late can be routed to multiple gates, which will provide operational flexibility, said Justin Meyer, deputy director of aviation at the Kansas City Department of Aviation.

The old KCI had 35 gates and 31 of them were leased to airlines, Meyer said. Four gates were available for use by any aircraft.

The new KCI terminal will have 40 gates, with 7 of them unleased and available to any airline, Meyer said.

Since all arriving planes will be in one terminal, this will provide multiple open gates when needed. Those gates are graced with electronic signs that can be used for more logos, airline names and other information.

Currently, a Delta flight that arrives early or late and is destined for Terminal B cannot be directed to an open gate at Terminal C. This inefficiency will disappear, Meyer said.

Travelers, mainly business travellers, who wish to park in a garage near the terminal will also find it much easier to do so. It’s been a nightmare for the last few years.

Often Southwest Airlines passengers, for example, had to depart from Terminal B but had to park in the Terminal C parking garage and take a bus or hike to and from Terminal B. The conundrum will end.

The public shouldn’t worry about any huge jumps in parking rates, even if they haven’t increased in seven years. The rate can go up by $1 or $2 a day at the garage, Meyer said.

There will also be more parking spaces in the new terminal. The garages in Terminals B and C currently offer 4,500 spaces. The new garage will have 6,219 spaces, Meyer said, “more than enough to meet demand.”

Many customers will still want to use the less expensive budget satellite parking. But they will be transported to and from the terminal by electric buses and buses powered by compressed natural gas.

For starters, 14 EV (electric vehicle) buses will be equipped to be recharged on the fly as passengers board and unload at the terminal, Meyer said.

Some mind-blowing strategies have gone into the setup and capabilities of the garage.

The red and green lights above each space will mean that drivers won’t have to endlessly circle up and down the aisles of the car park to find a vacant spot.

To “future-proof” the new terminal, Meyer said, airport planners have been preparing for the day that may come sooner than many suspect, perhaps, when self-driving cars allow us to get to the airport and then send our driverless cars home, Meyer said.

KCI could then offer garage space to rental car companies eager to move closer to the terminal for their customers, he said.

As the adoption and use of electric vehicles increases, the garage will increase the availability of electric vehicle charging points. There will be fewer than 100 to start with, Meyer said.

Martin Rosenberg is a Kansas City-based journalist and host of the Grid Talk podcast on the future of energy.

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