A portrait shot of Sandy Cisneros.
Sandy Cisneros was hired by Dunkin’ Donuts at a concessions job fair for the new terminal of the Kansas City International Airport on Jan. 23. (Christopher Smith/The Beacon)

Sandy Cisneros has a retail job in Liberty, Missouri, where she makes $15 an hour. But the mother of two children was looking for something that would offer more hours, better pay and a more flexible schedule. 

After showing up at a Jan. 23 hiring fair sponsored by the Vantage Airport Group at Kansas City International Airport, Cisneros left with everything she was looking for — along with the possibility of a raise. She will be a shift lead at Dunkin’ Donuts when the new KCI terminal opens in a few weeks. 

For Cisneros, her new job will be something of a homecoming. She’s worked retail jobs at KCI in the past. She expects that her return, like the $1.5 billion terminal she’ll be working in, will be busier and livelier. 

“It was an OK experience,” Cisneros said of her previous KCI gigs. “But I’m looking for more excitement because of the companies that are going to be at the new terminal.”

Excitement and flexibility — something else Cisneros was looking for — are two of the benefits employers are advertising as they staff up for the opening of the 1 million square-foot new terminal.

When is the new KCI airport opening?

The new terminal is set to open Feb. 28, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced in a press conference. 

Construction on the project began in 2019, two years after Kansas City residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of the development. Replacing KCI’s two horseshoe-shaped terminals, the new structure boasts 39 gates, an array of amenities focused on accessibility, and 50 retail, food and beverage operators.

While roughly the same size as the current airport terminals, the new structure will need more feet on the ground in day-to-day operations.  

“As far as the Aviation Department goes, it is status quo with no additional positions necessary to operate the new terminal,” said Joe McBride, marketing and communications manager at the Aviation Department.

“The current terminals do not lend to having staffed locations, but the new terminal does.”

The Aviation Department has created a customer experience unit for the new terminal and has already filled positions for that. But with the addition of new business and brands to the terminal, KCI is looking to bring on hundreds of new employees in the coming weeks.

New concessions jobs

The biggest need is in concessions. Food and retail operators are looking to retain about 200 employees and hire 800 more.

Vantage Airport Group, which is based in Vancouver, Canada, has a 15-year contract to manage the concessions in the new terminal. The Kansas City Council selected Vantage in part because it promised an array of local partnerships.

Kansas City businesses such as Soirée Steak & Oyster House, Made in KC Marketplace, Parisi Coffee and Director’s Cut Take 2 are among the list of businesses that will be hiring in the terminal.

A map of the concessions program with the local and global businesses that will be in the new KCI terminal. (Vantage Airport Group)

“We oversee the operators and we also have several operators that are local businesses… so they’re already recruiting at their landside businesses,” said Lovell Holloway, general manager for Vantage, who is coordinating the Kansas City project.

“Since the day we won the RFP [request for proposal], all of the local businesses participating with us have been gearing up and they also have employees that work for them who are like, ‘Hey, I want to work at the airport,’” he said. 
In 2021, the Kansas City Council set a goal that 16% of the businesses in the new terminal should meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s definition of an Airport Concession Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, meaning they are local, small and owned by people of color, women or veterans.

The KCI terminal has far exceeded that goal.  So far, 60% of the businesses coming online in the next few weeks are owned by people who fit the FAA description of a disadvantaged business enterprise, giving KCI one of the highest participation rates in the nation. 

Managers attribute the high rate to the emphasis on local businesses, which tend to hire people from their communities. 

National chains such as Smoothie King, Dunkin’ Donuts and Cinnabon are also looking to hire.

At the recent job fair, Timothy Wise said he found the variety of positions appealing. “I am gonna look over all of them, and I have experience with some of them, so I’m just seeing where I fit in,” he said. 

Wise is particularly excited about the pay. Concessionaires at the new terminal are offering up to $20 an hour. The average pay for food and retail employees in the old terminals is $15 an hour, Holloway said.

Timothy Wise talks to representatives at a concessions job fair for the new terminal of the Kansas City International Airport on Jan. 23.  (Christopher Smith/The Beacon)

Vantage Airport Group will be hosting two more hiring fairs for retail, food and beverage jobs on Feb. 6 and Feb. 13. 

Bus drivers and more needed 

The city’s Aviation Department is also on the hunt for employees to work at KCI, mostly to fill existing positions that are vacant. 

KCI jobs include maintenance personnel, electronic technicians, security officers, traffic control operators, custodians and bus operators. 

Bus drivers are especially in demand. Customers have complained about long waits for the buses that ferry passengers from KCI’s economy parking lots to and between the terminals.  

“We don’t have enough drivers, which makes the wait time longer,” said McBride. “That was an issue before the pandemic and continues through now.”

The department currently has 18 vacant operator positions with a starting pay of  $18.37 an hour. 

McBride partially attributes the difficulty in finding new drivers to the shortage other industries are facing.  

“We’re competing against private industries and other governments. Many people are always working with the target audience of candidates,” he said. 

Kansas City government’s residency requirement may contribute to the problem. The city requires all employees to live in the city, or to relocate into city limits within nine months of accepting a job. 

“People have to relocate, and that’s not as easy as working in the private sector,” McBride said. 

Once the new terminal opens, the airport’s red bus line, which offers transportation between the terminals and the circle parking lots, will be discontinued.  The current red buses will be added to the blue line, with the same staff operating both. 

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MILI MANSARAY is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.