How the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago still impact travel today at KCI Airport

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This year marks 20 years since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s no surprise that since that day, airports across the United States saw some of the biggest changes.

In Kansas City, about 200 flights unexpectedly landed at Kansas City International Airport when all air travel was grounded that day.

“Every time I think 9/11, I think of how even though it was a difficult time, even though it was traumatic, I feel that it brought folks together,” traveler Anthony Rollie said.

“My birthday is Sept. 10, so I will always remember that as the day after my birthday,” Beth Eland said. “Sept. 11 was a giant, sad moment for our country. It’s hard to believe it’s 20 years.”

About 1,200 miles from New York City at KCI Airport, changes were felt then and are still in place to this day.

“You’d look up in the sky and you’d see the contrails, the condensation trails. Instead of going across, they were coming down, they were circular, landing,” airport spokesman Joe McBride said.

The 9/11 attacks brought about security changes like the Transportation Security Administration and full-body imaging machines. At KCI, officials made the glass walls sectioning off the gates taller.

KCI has a long history of adapting.

When it opened in 1972, the horseshoe terminal design gave travelers a feeling of being able to drive right up to their gate. It was just 70 feet from the curb to the gate, an aspect still enjoyed to this day.

“That’s always been the beauty of this airport, being able to get in and get out really quick,” Eland said.

But it quickly presented challenges. Just 26 days after opening, chaos nearly struck.

“We have a front-page Kansas City Star article that says new airport opened, and on the same front page an airplane was hijacked,” McBride said.

Three hijackers threatened to crash a plane into a nuclear facility in Tennessee.

That led to added security checkpoints and the first glass walls were in place at KCI. Years later, 9/11 enhancements were an expansion of that to coincide with then-new federal guidelines.

And now, more change is coming to KCI.

“We have before us here a $1.5 billion new terminal that we are building for Kansas Citians and travelers,” McBride said.

Mcbride said the terminal, opening March 2023, will have state-of-the-art security.

Right now, KCI has passengers from multiple gates sharing security checkpoints, a product of the lack of space.

“We won’t have the choke points and the checkpoints, as I call it right now,” McBride said.  “[The new terminal will] incorporate the latest in security technology and customer service technology, but also be flexible enough to where you can’t imagine what’s going to occur in the future, but we’ll have a facility where it’ll be easier to implement security mandates that come from the federal government.”

For the last 20 years and beyond, airports like KCI have had to adapt.

Currently, it’s the COVID-19 pandemic. But through it all, people in Kansas City said they feel safe when they fly, and that’s the goal.

“It’s not going to stop me from traveling; it’s not going to stop my family from traveling. We want to be together. We want to see each other,” Eland said.

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