Will the New Airport be Named in Honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

And why do we call the Airport KCI when it’s actually MCI On all of our travel documents?

Illustration by Katie Sloan

What’s in a Name?

If you’re surprised that the quest to name a street in honor of Dr. King took a detour to the airport, you’re not alone. Laura Swinford is the communications director for Kansas City Mayor Sly James, and she confesses that even the mayor’s team was caught off guard when a suggestion from citizens’ groups to rename the new airport after King took flight.

“We had never even thought of the airport. But once it was mentioned, people really rallied for it. I’ll admit I was surprised when it came up. It was really interesting, and one thing that the mayor felt strongly about was this decision needed to be open to the whole community.”

The Kansas City MLK Advisory Committee officially voted to rename the airport after Dr. King in May. That recommendation quickly got diverted to naming only the terminal after King due to FAA designations and a recommendation from the city’s Aviation Department expressing that taking Kansas City out of the airport’s name would pose problematic regarding tourism, marketing and branding. The following is a quote from a letter Patrick Klein, the director of aviation at KCI, sent to the Mayor’s advisory group.

“Doing so would remove the airport’s critical geographic indicator, create confusion among the traveling public and would hinder the Aviation Department’s ability to effectively market Kansas City both nationally and internationally.”

For now, the suggestion stands at the Martin Luther King Terminal at Kansas City International Airport.

Swinford says she thinks one of the appeals of naming the terminal after MLK is that it will be brand-new and doesn’t have a history attached to it. 

“I feel like people liked the fact that it wouldn’t be renaming anything. It would be new. There’s a lot of emotional attachment to streets and their names, and this would be fresh. Nothing would be renamed. It would be an original way to pay tribute to Martin Luther King.”

No decision will be made on the name change just yet. The city council still has work to do including seeing what it would cost to name the terminal after MLK. Intellectual Properties Management is the exclusive licensor of the King estate and currently being run by King’s children. IPM has a history of charging for the use of King’s name. The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, which spearheaded building the King monument on the National Mall in Washington D.C., had to pay IPM $760,000.

As for the current name of the airport, KCI, have you ever wondered why your airline ticket and luggage documents say MCI? Well, it was all part of a tribute to a defunct airline.  

Mid-Continent Airlines, absorbed by Braniff in 1952, was Kansas City’s hometown airline. Still stinging from the loss of the local brand, Kansas City decided to rename the then expanding Kansas City Industrial Airport to Mid-Continent as a tribute to both the airline and the Mid-Continent oil field. The name also highlighted the valuable location of Kansas City as a halfway point on transcontinental flights: 1950s airliners were fuel inefficient and stopping midway to refuel was common.  

At the time, MCI was not the city’s premier airport, but rather a major maintenance base for TWA so, the naming drew little public interest. It was only in 1972, after the Downtown Airport lost airline service due to safety concerns stemming from the surrounding city and short runways that Mid-Continent was given the name Kansas City International, coinciding with the completion of the terminal system we know today.

 The FAA and International Civil Aviation Organization did not, however, approve a change of identifiers from MCI to KCI. Meanwhile, Wichita seized the chance to rename their airport Mid-Continent. In 2015 Wichita renamed their airport, yet again, to Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport, but it’s still being referred to as Mid-Continent. 

Confused yet? It’s enough to make you want to take your tray table out of its upright position and bang your head on it.