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Why building new airports like Salt Lake City's is rare, and what it might mean for your travel plans

The resources needed for airport revamps are substantial. That's what makes building a new one so remarkable.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City airport isn't the only one remodeling, but it's unusual in opting for a total rebuild.

Construction projects are planned for more than 50 U.S. airports and could cost up to $70 billion through 2021, according to Architectural Record.

As major airports have reached their limit of quick fixes for modernizing outdated facilities, they now have to begin major redesigns, T.J. Schulz, president of the Airports Consultants Council, told the Record.

With America settling into the summer season of travel, the stakes are high for airports — many of which were built decades ago — to accommodate the increasing numbers of globetrotters and air commuters. Cities and airline industries feel this pressure, too, and while cost is a very real deterrent for these revamping projects, failing to engage in them also risks a substantial loss of business.

Salt Lake City’s international airport, slated to open in 2020, “will be the only truly new 21st-century airport in the U.S.,” Bill Wyatt, executive director of Salt Lake City’s Department of Airports, previously told the Deseret News. The last newly constructed U.S. airport was opened in Denver in 1995.

The Salt Lake City airport’s construction project is the product of a 10-year, over-$3 billion redevelopment plan paid for by the airport’s “self-sustaining fund” and uses no taxpayer dollars, the Deseret News reported.

In addition to this funding, the airport received a $14 million grant from the Federal Aviation Association’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) for runway-related construction according to an FAA announcement last week.

It's just one example of the struggle to pay for the mammoth projects that airport construction inevitably become. As you pass through the inevitable airport reconstruction and deal with the resulting travel delays expected this summer, you may have extra time to wonder how it's all being paid for and why airport remodels happen the way they do. We have some answers.

Who pays for airport remodels?

Government funding is an important part of the process for improving U.S. airports.

In his first joint address to Congress, President Trump stated his intent that America’s “crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways.”

Trump’s infrastructure plan, however, funds incentives for investors rather than actual projects, decreasing the likelihood they will be completed, writes Ronald A. Klain, former White House official who oversaw the Obama-era American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package, in a piece for The Washington Post.

The skeleton of the north concourse at the Salt Lake City International Airport is pictured following a topping-off ceremony on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. The airport is currently undergoing a $3.6 billion airport expansion and the final beam of the concour
Salt Lake City Department of Airports finishes a topping out ceremony on the North Concourse of the Salt Lake City International Airport reconstruction on Tuesday, March 19, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Even without Trump's plan, the government still largely pays for airport construction projects through other channels.

According to the Airports Council International, it’s a common misconception that local taxpayers foot the bill for airports: “In reality, infrastructure projects at airports in the United States are funded through three key mechanisms: federal grants through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program, the Passenger Facility Charge local user fee and tenant rents and fees.”

And while this means that airport users, not local citizens, pay for most airport improvements, other sources are also required to help cover construction costs.

The new Salt Lake City airport, for example, is funded in part by Delta Air Lines, which is spending $1.2 billion a year for the next decade on airport projects in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, Salt Lake City and Seattle, a company spokesman told The New York Times.

In addition, most airports need to take on a significant terminal project every 25 years to keep up with industry-related changes in everything from aircraft size to concession options, Stephen Harrill, aviation architecture practice leader at Pond, an architecture, planning and construction firm, told Airport Improvement.

Why are so many airports redesigned rather than rebuilt?

A new or refurbished airport needs new land, and that isn’t plentiful in the major areas where airlines do business.

San Francisco International Airport’s new Terminal 1 redevelopment, for example, has been handled in stages in order to meet the requirement that the terminal be rebuilt without ever closing it, according to SF Gate.

This is the process for most airport construction — keeping passengers moving while amending or creating the structure — and it means that space is at a premium in airports that are already overcrowded.

Los Angeles International Airport was named the “World’s Worst Airport” by Fodor's this week, citing “never-ending construction” and poor design as the culprits, particularly as they relate to the airport’s sprawl:

“Thanks to the improbably stupid design of its catastrophic horseshoe motor-loop, it regularly requires 30 minutes to travel the short mile from the outskirts of the airport to most of its terminals. … There is no other way to arrive or depart from this maddening complex of suffering but through the interminable traffic.”

Workers sign the final beam to be placed on the north concourse at the Salt Lake City International Airport is pictured with an American flag during a topping-off ceremony on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. The airport is currently undergoing a $3.6 billion airp
Salt Lake City Department of Airports holds a topping out ceremony on the North Concourse of the Salt Lake City International Airport reconstruction on Tuesday, March 19, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Even when there is space for building, construction increases airport congestion.

The new SLC airport is one of the construct-then-demolish projects. And the time these projects take is as significant an investment as the construction itself.

Conceptual studies for the new airport began in 2007, rerouting access roads started in 2014, and the two-phase project is scheduled to be completed in 2024, according to Engineering News-Record, which notes that the SLC airport is the 25th busiest in the U.S. and has been a Delta hub since the 1980s.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been criticized for his promise to have the $13 billion John F. Kennedy International Airport reconstruction completed by 2025, with Forbes contributor Dan Reed saying: “In this case ‘ambitious’ is a euphemism for ‘almost certain not to happen that soon.’”

Reed explains that the red tape involved with any airport construction project is thick and tangled:

“It would be quite the political feat for Cuomo to push his plan through the pre-planning, the airline and vendor negotiations, the legal, the environmental approval, the financing, the second legal, the demolition, and the construction stages of his redevelopment plan in just four years. Everybody, you see, loves airports until someone tries to build, or re-build one.”