Like most Thanksgiving travelers, Kent Westervelt and his wife were ready to get home when their flight landed at Kansas City International Airport last weekend.
After picking up their bags from the Southwest Airlines baggage claim Saturday afternoon, they headed out to catch a ride from a Blue Bus to take them to the airport’s economy parking.
The couple from Leawood gathered with other travelers at the bus stop and waited. And waited. And waited.
“They got to fix this,” said Westervelt, who estimated it took around an hour to get from the baggage claim to the parking lot. “It’s a disaster.”
His frustrations were echoed by another Thanksgiving traveler who submitted a news tip to The Star saying she and her husband arrived at 11:30 p.m. Sunday and there was an inadequate number of buses running to the parking lots. People had become irate standing in the cold.
The tipster, who declined to be interviewed for this story, said they waited 80 minutes before they could get onto a Blue Bus.
“Obviously 80 minutes, if that was the number that was thrown out, that’s unacceptable,” said Patrick Klein, director of aviation for Kansas City.
Struggle to find workers
Historically, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the busiest air travel day of the year. An estimated 38,000 passengers use the airport that day. For the entire holiday, officials expected approximately 356,000 passengers passed through KCI. Travel this year returned to pre-pandemic levels.
On top of that, KCI is struggling to find workers not only for its bus operations, but to fill other entry-level jobs at the airport as well, Klein said.
To address the shortage, the Kansas City Aviation Department will hold a hiring fair from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday at the KCI Expo Center at 11730 North Ambassador Drive in Kansas City, North. The department is looking to fill a wide host of jobs, including bus operators and trainees.
Half of the 60 bus driver positions are open, Klein said. One of the challenges to fill those positions is that candidates need to have a commercial driver’s license. The department has hired a commercial driver’s license trainer which allows them to hire people without the commercial license and train them.
“The problem we sometimes have is once they get their CDL, they become very attractive to leave the organization for a higher paying job,” Klein said.
The minimal pay for bus driver is $18.37 an hour, or $38,210 a year, with the max of $28.01, or $58,261 a year.
The aviation department also has instituted an incentive plan to reward drivers who reach certain milestones of years of service.
Other challenges in finding workers include Kansas City’s residency requirement and the airport’s location in the far northwest part of the city, he said.
Because of the staffing level of bus drivers, no vacations are allowed over the holidays and the aviation department can mandate overtime for workers who aren’t already doing overtime, Klein said.
On holidays, the aviation department also urges passengers to arrive more than two hours ahead of time.
“When it’s Thanksgiving, the traveler should expect lines at sort of every phase of the travel experience,” he said. “Whether that is at parking, whether that’s at the security check point, whether that’s at the gate because flights are full.”
That doesn’t excuse the wait that travelers faced, he said, but that’s a sort of hiccup that could affect the travel time.
“A lot of people traveling Kansas City think I don’t have to get here that early in Kansas City,” he said. “And when they find there are hiccups in the lines, they’re frustrated because they’re not used to that.”
Waits not limited to holidays
The issue of long waits for the Blue Buses apparently isn’t just a problem limited just to holidays.
Joe Davis of Merriam has flown three times this year and he said he has seen a decline in service. The last time he flew, he saw only one bus over a span of 25 minutes. There just doesn’t seem to be enough Blue Buses.
He remembers talking to people in September who were wondering if another bus was coming or if they had completely missed it. He said he understands staffing shortages, but it is disappointing.
“My hope is that the experience gets better because for the most part I haven’t had issues with Kansas City airport,” he said. “I brag to people how easy it is to get in and out so quickly.”
The airport has a fleet of about 30 buses, with more than half of those operational, Klein said. Because the buses run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there is at least three or four buses running at a time, if not more. They’re quipped with GPS and radios, so they can be tracked.
“One of the challenges we have in the two terminals, obviously, is that you’ve got multiple bus stops,” he said. “So if the buses fill up at say the first few stops at the terminal, the people may see a Blue Bus but it goes past them because it’s full.”
Drivers should be notifying dispatchers when they are full and there are still travelers needing to be picked up.
“Obviously we’ll look at the situation and try to course practice and make sure that we’re better the next time,” Klein said.
The last set of complaints they have gotten seem to have been related to late evening service. He said it looks like they need to examine staffing levels in the 8 p.m. to midnight range to make sure they have enough drivers to pick up travelers when they’re coming in late.
There’s also the challenge of flights being delayed and not arriving on time as expected.
“All of a sudden you’ve got 400 people on the curb wanting to get to the economy lot,” he said. “That becomes a challenge when we thought they were going to be here two hours earlier.”
New terminal could alleviate issue
With the new single terminal that’s to open next spring, everyone will load into the buses at one location. This should be a better situation for travelers and more transparent to them as to how long the wait times will be, Klein said.
Even after the new terminal opens, though, Klein said the city will need to look at a long term solution to how it handles getting travelers to and from economy parking.
Other airports are turning toward automated people movers like trams or a rail system to get passengers to and from the terminal, Klein said. If that is done at KCI, that could include moving economy parking closer in to the terminal.
“But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Klein said. “That’s probably, you know, a seven year project at least to get it built out.”
A feasibility study would have to be completed to make sure there’s funding for the project. The aviation department would work with the rental car companies because they have their own fleet of buses too.
“This might be a long term fix for the airport for these kind of issues,” Klein said.
In the meantime, the waits are frustrating travelers.
“We don’t travel a lot but when we have traveled, its horrible,” said Westervelt, who added that he used to travel every week and had always used long-term parking. He’s never seen it this bad.
“I honestly feel worse for the families and the kids,” Westervelt said. “Everybody coming home is tired from traveling and you just want to get home.”
As a business owner, he understands the labor situation. He feels that if the city is going to offer a service, then it needs to staff it appropriately.
“It’s just gotten to a level now where I cannot trust KCI economy parking,” he said.