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S.L's Takeoff Point

On this morning at the Salt Lake International Airport, Judy Adams, Pam Hutchinson and Ruthie Johnson are going to Puerto Vallarta. Joan Cassidy O'Holland is flying to Nagano for the Olympics. Lesli and Roger Schei are hopping over to Denver to see her parents.

It is early, but gate agents on the international side have already checked in people going to Spain, Vienna, Munich, Delhi and even a group of eight headed for Pakistan. Those in line on the domestic side are heading for Missoula, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Houston.Upstairs, members of the Hanford High cheerleading team, dressed in bright purple sweats and wearing chrysanthemum corsages, have just arrived from Washington and are hurrying to make their connecting flight to the national cheerleading competition in Orlando, Fla. They, like so many others, are just passing through. Meanwhile, Flight 1859, bound for Minneapolis/St. Paul, will begin boarding soon; and people are starting to gather for Flight 1776 to Boston. Announcements about enplaning mingle with pages: return to the counter; meet your party at the gate; pick up the white courtesy phone.

Down at the baggage carousels, the Tulsa basketball team has arrived and is awaiting its luggage. So is Norita Winterton, who is just getting back from a convention in Nashville. But she had an unplanned layover in Louisville due to the snow. "I have no idea where my luggage might be," she says, clearly taking it all in stride.

It is just another day at the Salt Lake International Airport. People coming, people going. For the briefest of moments their lives all interconnect, and then they are scattered like seeds on the wind.

Airports are like that. They are places of anticipation and expectation, sometimes of frustration, sometimes of satisfaction. But, whatever else is going on, there always seems to be a lot of commotion. A sense of energy fills the air; the pace is quick; things are happening; people are on the move.

And if things seem extra crowded and extra busy at the Salt Lake International Airport, on this day or any other, it's because they are.

Air travel is up.

Last year some 21 million passengers went through the Salt Lake Airport. That's up over the year before. They've seen double-digit increases in passengers in the past five years, said Russ Widmar, executive director of the Salt Lake Airport Authority. "A 4 percent increase is considered strong; we're well over that. This is one of the fastest-growing airports in the country." In fact, in the past decade, while nationwide passenger traffic increased 34 percent, Salt Lake's increased 111 percent.

The problem, of course, is that there has been no corresponding increase in building size, in counter space, terminal curb length or ability to park airplanes at gates.

It is time to change that. Last spring the Salt Lake City Airport Authority's board of directors adopted a 20-year master plan that calls for a $1.68 billion renovation of the airport, including replacement of the two existing terminals with a single main terminal and satellite concourses. Funding for the project will come from airport user fees, fees charged to the airlines and by the federal government. No local tax dollars will be used.

"The airport is running at double the capacity it was designed for," said Jake Garn, a member of the airport's board. "There's no doubt that this is vitally needed. It should have been built before now, but in politics, it seems, it's never possible to sell something before its time."

"This is not a case of `build it and they will come'; they're already here," said Widmar. "This is no `field of dreams'; the need is real now."

The first Salt Lake "airport" was built in 1911 - just six years after Wilbur and Orville Wright took their famous flight. Little more than a cinder-block landing strip in a marshy pasture, it was still a sign that a new era in transportation had arrived. The first buildings were added in 1933.

The building that now houses Terminal 1 was built in 1960; Terminal 2 was added in 1978. The airport now covers 7,100 acres.

Keeping up with the times has always been a challenge. "In 1937, my father was the first director of aeronautics for Salt Lake City," said Garn. "I have a copy of a speech he made talking about the need for expansion and urging the city to buy the land to the west for expansion."

At that time they all laughed at him. "But when I was mayor, we did actually buy some of that land. He was proven right." But even in those days only 3 million passengers were moving through the airport. Who could even think that by the next century that number could increase to 44 million? That's the projection for 2015.

So expansion is necessary. And it is on that land to the west where this latest round of improvements will largely take place.

The airport's master plan is, over the next 20 years, to almost completely rebuild the airport. The design calls for developing a new main terminal building, to be located southwest of where Terminal 2 now stands. All airlines will be located in this central facility. It will feature a multilevel operation that will put all ticketing on the upper level and baggage claim on the lower level.

To meet requirements for projected airline gates, the concept includes one attached parallel concourse and two detached parallel concourses that will be served by an underground people-mover system.

This is a totally different look from the current horseshoe terminal approach and one that is much more efficient, said Widmar.

"One of our operational problems now is that aircraft have to push back from the gate onto an active runway. While they are pushing back, it shuts down other use of the runway." The other system - like that used in Atlanta and at the new Denver airport - is much more efficient, he said.

When finished, jet gate capacity will be increased from 51 to 100, regional airline gates will go from 17 to 34 and total building area will increase from 1 million to 2.9 million square feet. Additional retail facilities will also be added.

In addition, the plan calls for upgrades for access roadways and parking. The existing terminal access system is a one-way loop that includes three lanes, except near the terminals, where it splits into commercial and private lanes. A new two-level roadway system will be developed for the new terminal complex, with the upper level serving the ticketing and passenger drop-off and the bottom level serving baggage claim and passenger pickup. Each level will have four lanes.

A new 11,000-space parking structure is also included in the master plan. Covered walkways will connect the parking structure with the main terminal building.

Construction will be broken into 8-, 15- and 20-year increments. That phasing is one of the important concepts of the master plan. The goal is to cause the least possible inconvenience to passengers. New buildings will be built before old ones are taken down. "That's the reason for phases," Garn said. "It would be nice to say, `We need this now; let's just do it.' But the plan is designed to minimize impact on passengers. One of the nice things about the plan is how well-thought-out it is. There've been changes even since it was first proposed. It's evolved. We've been pleased with its development."

The airport is past the point where adding on and stopgap measures can fix things. The only thing that makes sense is to start in the undeveloped areas to the west, said Widmar. "We could add on a second level here - but you can't easily operate while you're under construction. Where do you put those 21 million passengers?"

Although 11 airlines do business at the Salt Lake Airport, Delta is by far the largest user. Probably about 80 percent of the traffic through the airport involves Delta, said Delta customer service representative Scott Allred.

And Delta would be one of the first to agree that more space is needed. Follow a passenger through the process, and at every step there are critical needs, said Allred. There is almost always congestion at curbside, as people are being dropped off and others are being picked up. "We could use double the curb space," said Allred.

They have 40 positions at the ticket counter and could easily use another 20. "At peak times, we can get long queues. They move pretty fast, but we hate to keep people waiting."

Yes, he said, more people are flying these days and the planes are fuller. "Fifteen years ago we had a load factor in the 50s. Now, it's running about 85 percent - 90 percent over the holidays." Full planes are necessary, he said, given the low-cost fares.

At peak times, concourses also feel the pinch. "They are 25 feet wide now. The new plan calls for 50 feet. And more moving sidewalks." Approximately 80 percent of the traffic that goes through is connecting to other planes. Wider concourses will help smooth that process.

And then there is the baggage claim area. Ten years ago, Delta added four piers and two carousels, to make a total of 12 piers altogether. "But we're pretty tapped. On a busy day, 3,000 bags an hour can go through here. Sometimes as many as 35 baggage trains can arrive at the unloading area at the same time. Our goal is to have that first bag unloaded within 10 minutes of landing, but sometimes we get backed up here for 20, 30 minutes."

And tighter security measures can mean further complications. "On outbound international flights, we don't board luggage until the passenger boards. The FAA is proposing that for all flights. That will require more holding room."

The new plan, he said, "will be nice for us."

And that seems to be the consensus everywhere. There has been little opposition to the expansion plans, said Widmar. "We've really had a consensus of opinion among all the airlines. They all easily recognize the need and that it's not a good idea to continue to invest in a building that's 37 years old. About the only issue has been the timing."

They have a unique opportunity, he said, in that airline leases expire in 2003, and prior to that many of the new facilities will be built.

Still, he said, it is a major investment, and every expense will be questioned. It is not a plan that has been undertaken lightly. "It took eight months just to flush out the original plan. Then we had to educate the mayor, the City Council and the community."

Construction will accelerate or slow down based on market conditions, so the phasing is a little fluid. But they are making progress. Day & Zimmerman Infrastructure of Philadelphia has been chosen as program manager. HNTB has been selected as architect. "We know what we want, but we still have to design what the building will look like specifically," said Widmar. Probably the first construction will be the new parking facility. "It'll be huge; it'll stand out like an elephant in the grass, and we want it to look good, to not be offensive." Just the site preparation is a good season's work - not glamorous but very important.

Denver, he said, is probably the best comparison, but Denver did the whole thing new. "The things we're doing are unique here. We're trying to save as much infrastructure as possible. The parking terrace we have now, for example, will be with us for at least 15 years. We'll keep the new international arrivals building as long as possible, but eventually it will be right in the way. And we have to plan for light rail."

Above all, he said, "we have to plan for the safety and security of our passengers. Those are our top priorities."

Even now, even with all the congestion, the Salt Lake Airport is given high marks. "It was rated in an independent audit as one of the most efficiently run airports in the country," said Garn. And, for a man who has been to more airports around the world than he likes to think about, he says the Salt Lake International Airport stacks up with the best of them. "You look at those other airports - JFK, Chicago, Atlanta - they're constantly changing. I think JFK has been under construction every time I've been there in the past 20 years." Utah's planners hope to avoid that here, and they hope to create nothing less than a world-class airport.

In the end, they hope to have a place that does more than just get people from curb to plane safely and efficiently. They hope to also have a place that reflects the values, flavor and flair of the city that it's a gateway for. Great airports, after all - those places of expectation and commotion, where countless lives touch for brief moments - are like that.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Airport development

Salt Lake International

Cost Amount in million

Project 1996-2001 2002-2006 2007-2011 2012-2015 Total

Airfield facilities $22 $43 $46 $46 $157

Terminal facilities $295 $236 $318 $122 $971

Parking and roadways $50 $26 $68 $2 $146

Cargo $100 $38 $49 $49 $235

General aviation $6 $6 $6 $6 $24

Support facilities $12 $12 $47 $81 $151

TOTAL $485 $359 $533 $306 $1,683