New Flight Plan
Salt Lake City International Airport
West of the tall Wasatch Mountains and east of the shorter Oquirrh Mountains is the place everyone goes to go somewhere else. Salt Lake City International Airport’s footprint is vast and impressive, and it’s about to become even more so. The airport’s replacement project is one of the nation’s rare renovations in the aviation industry. Airport administration debated remodel versus replacement for 18 months before choosing replacement.
“There are so few projects in the U.S. where an airport is completely rebuilt,” says Maureen Riley, Salt Lake City Department of Airports executive director. “Other airports have added on, but an entirely new facility replacing an old one is a rare thing. It’s quite the accomplishment to get the approvals lined up, including support from the airlines.
Airline support is vital for an airport replacement project. That’s what adds value to an endeavor costing $3.1 billion, which in the long run, will improve travel for people living within hundreds of miles. Salt Lake City International Airport serves more than 23 million passengers and is the only international airport in Utah. Few other states have a single major operator like it.
“Airports use the term ‘catchment area’ to measure reach, and our catchment area has a radius of 300 miles,” Riley says. “People come from far and wide for our airport, and that’s not true for most other states and regions.”
Reach adds value. So, airports strive to maximize reach to attract airlines like Delta, which has an international hub in Salt Lake City. Attracting airlines adds revenue to an industry that isn’t funded by taxpayer dollars. Fees paid by travelers and airlines fund runways, terminals and the operation of U.S. airports. Taxpayer dollars are not a revenue source. That’s why airports need airline support before they proceed with any kind of renovation, including Salt Lake’s replacement project.
“Airports have to be self-sustaining in the U.S.,” Riley says, “even though we are generally owned by local governments. Airports are built on user fees, and airlines are major users. Every time an airplane touches down, the airline pays a landing fee based on the weight of the aircraft. They also pay rent on the space they lease. Through collection of fees, the airlines contribute to repayment of debt obligations.”
The particular debt obligation at Salt Lake City International Airport includes replacing the current venue — which was mostly built in the 1960s — with a new venue that adds gate capacity.
Remodels over the years, including improvements for the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games, added square footage to ticketing and check-in. The replacement plan enlarges the whole footprint of the airport, including places passengers don’t see, like baggage delivery systems and other areas where more than 14,000 employees work.
“Our plan is to build a more convenient airport in all aspects,” Riley says. “We’ve put a lot of time into designing the new airport and making sure we capture all the needs of the traveling public.”
There are two phases of replacement construction. Phase one, underway now, will finish in 2020. Phase two will wrap up in 2024.
While replacing costs 10 to 15 percent more than remodeling, a remodel would have left the airport with a constrained airfield and small concourses. Replacing the airport accommodates more air traffic and allows for more expansion in the future where, in this case, the mountain, rather than the sky, is the limit.
“The challenge here in Salt Lake City is the Wasatch Mountains and the Oquirrh Mountains. They create boundaries for airspace,” Riley says. “We have the ability in the future to add one more runway to the west, and that will be the last runway we can ever add. That’s because of airspace restrictions within those two mountain ranges.”
Ironically, the same mountain ranges limiting airspace over Utah’s capital city are also part of the design elements in the airport’s replacement plan. Expect a larger viewing area with more windows for seeing outside and earthy color schemes inside the airport to welcome the increased number of travelers passing through.
“The traveling public will remember Salt Lake City because the new design is spectacular,” Riley says. “We did a survey a few years back asking travelers what they wanted to see in the airport and one of the very top things was Utah’s natural beauty brought inside. We’re going to allow passengers to see out on the landscape so they too can enjoy the beautiful environment we live in, in Salt Lake City.”