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Bad luck for airport project
Departure of Widmar took wind out of sails

SHARE Bad luck for airport project
Departure of Widmar took wind out of sails

When Russell C. Widmar left Salt Lake International Airport last week, the heart and soul of the airport expansion project went with him.

A 20-year, $1.7 billion master plan remains, but the urgency and vision Widmar provided are gone."He was, no question, the champion of the redevelopment of the airport," said Keith Christensen, chairman of the Salt Lake City Council and an ex officio member of the Department of Airports' advisory board.

Without Widmar, a $995 million plan to build a new terminal, two new concourses and other enhancements by 2005 could be drastically scaled back.

A revised plan was in the works before Widmar's departure. But less than a week after his resignation as executive director was announced March 11, members of the advisory board talked of slicing the budget for the $955 million first phase by as much as $300 million to $500 million.

Among the current thoughts are: building just one of two new concourses proposed for construction by 2005, at a total cost of $319 million; reducing the size of a new main terminal, originally estimated to cost $188 million; and leaving the existing terminal II building intact -- including a relatively new international arrivals facility -- at least through 2005.

According to a written statement, 53-year-old Widmar resigned "to pursue other business and personal interests." He declined an interview with the Deseret News, except to say he felt the development program was "in good shape, on budget and with the controls in place that will allow the program to be managed properly."

Roger Black, the city's director of management services and part of a six-member airport development oversight committee, said there is still overwhelming support for the extensive airport reconstruction program described in the 20-year master plan. The only question, he said, is the timing -- how much, how soon.

"The momentum behind this redevelopment plan is still very much in place," Black said. "It's probably safe to say that we're going to end up with a different result than maybe the pictures have shown, but then that's the normal process. And I'm pretty comfortable that it's not going to be a fundamentally different result."

What is unknown -- because of the relative silence of Widmar, Mayor Deedee Corradini, new interim director of airports John Wheat and others -- is just how much of a role Widmar's advocacy of expansion played in his decision to leave.

It was evident, however, that members of the airport's leadership team differed with Widmar on just how much expansion should be undertaken in the first eight-year phase. Passenger volumes, which had increased for a 17th consecutive year shortly after Widmar's arrival, began a downturn in 1997 that fueled -- and continues to spark -- talk of scaling back the program.

Complaints about Widmar's "management style" reportedly inspired two closed-door meetings between Corradini and the advisory board around the end of the year. But the initial casualty of the apparent management conflict, Cheryl Cook, favored a more conservative approach to expansion. She left her position as director of finance and administration, saying she "could no longer be assured that proper business and financial controls would be maintained."

Cook, who said she did not want to report directly to Widmar, was later re-assigned as an adviser to Black and the airport oversight committee, a job she currently holds. Cook declined an interview with the Deseret News following Widmar's departure.

Corradini, who will leave office at the end of the year, has decided against a search for a new director. It appears Wheat will remain at the helm at least until the next mayor takes office.

What that means to the expansion program is unclear. After his first board meeting as interim director Wednesday, Wheat said it is "premature to comment" on where the development program is headed.

Christensen and advisory board Chairman J. Craig Larson agreed that the expansion program, by nature, is fluid -- at least at this point.

"What we don't want to do is build an airport that has a far greater capacity than we're going to need for the foreseeable future," Larson said.

Within the next three months, the schematic design for the new airport will be complete and two separate construction cost analyses are due. Wheat said he wants to wait until those reports are available before making up his mind. Christensen and Larson agreed that much more will be known, and determined, within the next six months.

No matter what the city decides to build, it will need the support of Salt Lake International's airlines -- particularly Delta Air Lines, which maintains a recently downsized but still significant hub in Salt Lake City.

But passengers will foot the bill for expansion one way or another -- either through higher passenger-facility charges added onto the cost of each ticket, or an increase in per-flight landing fees or rental and lease costs that airlines will pass on to customers in the form of increased ticket prices.

Larson told the airport advisory board Wednesday that a recent meeting he and Widmar had with Delta was "a very positive step forward." The airline is likely to support some expansion, although perhaps not the full $995 million project now envisioned for 2005, Larson said.

"Their perception is, obviously, wanting it to be profitable," Larson said of Delta's approach to expansion. "They told us they were marginally profitable (at Salt Lake International) compared to other hubs."

Delta spokesman Todd Clay said the carrier "supports improved facilities that will make it (traveling) easier and more convenient for the passenger."

"The other side of the coin is we are concerned about costs because the cost of improvements have to be borne by someone, and unless Delta can maintain profitability, we have a real problem," Clay said.

No formal support is needed now since the major carriers have agreements with the airport that don't expire until 2003. But airport officials don't want to take steps that ultimately will damage the relationship with those airlines.

"The normal process is that all of the carriers have to approve improvements at the airport, and it's a joint decision," Clay said.

The drop in passenger volume has concerned those involved in the process to varying degrees. Passenger totals have dropped from an all-time annual high of 21,088,478 in 1996 to 20,297,371 in 1998. But the 1998 figure is only one percentage point off projections made by a consultant four years earlier.

And the decrease in passengers has been observed primarily in the number of folks stopping in Salt Lake only to connect with another flight. For the last three months of 1998, for example, the number of passengers whose final destination was Salt Lake City decreased by 1.75 percent while the number of passengers making a connection dropped by 6.51 percent.

Those figures are understandable considering Delta's decision last spring to moderately de-emphasize its Salt Lake hub. It now has 161 departures a day compared to 175 a year ago. But Clay said Delta is committed to using Salt Lake City as a hub, calling it "an integral part of our world-wide system."

The city, ultimately, has little control over what Delta and other airlines do. A few City Council members feel it has lacked control over the airport itself, as well. Council members Deeda Seed and Joanne Milner, in particular, complain that Corradini was not attentive enough to what was happening at the airport before Widmar's troubles arose.

Corradini's frequent travel away from the city has been a continuing bone of contention among council members. Others, however, say that's simply her management style: appoint managers and directors over departments and allow them to do their jobs.

"She pretty much left it to Widmar and his lieutenants," said Councilman Carlton Christensen, who, along with Keith Christensen, is a member of the airport advisory board. "There's enough expertise out there that people joke the airport could pretty much run itself. It is a well-oiled, well-groomed machine."

But when it comes to expansion, things get real complicated real quick, and that's where many of the problems apparently originated. Although Corradini consulted extensively with the advisory board during the recent crisis, she didn't always take its advice.

"Construction problems were more daunting than anyone thought," Carlton Christensen said. "They really didn't realize the scope of the project. It's so big -- it will be the largest construction project in the state."

The irony with some City Council members complaining that the mayor has ignored them in dealing with airport affairs is that they deal cursorily with the one aspect of the affair over which they do have control: the budget.

"We approve their budget in probably 15 minutes, and it's so large," Carlton Christensen said. "It's amazing we don't put more attention to it."