To the shortsighted, this may seem like a ridiculous time to open the nation’s first entirely new hub airport in this century — more than 4 million square feet of space to accommodate hordes of travelers.
Delta Airlines, the hub carrier, announced Monday it plans to furlough 1,941 pilots this fall, and American Airlines said Tuesday it plans to cut 19,000 jobs. Traffic in and out of Salt Lake City has gone from 30,000 on a typical weekend in February to barely 1,500.
But that’s a myopic view. To people with vision, this is a perfect time.
The pandemic will not last forever. When it ends, air travel will surge beyond the 26 million passengers who came through the old airport last year, and Salt Lake City will be poised with a world-class facility capable of handling it.
Members of the media got a tour of the new facility this week, ahead of the grand opening on Sept. 15. Dignitaries put items in a time capsule, tentatively scheduled for review 100 years from now. Anticipation is growing for a new airport that is as much a showcase for Salt Lake City and Utah as it is a modern “cathedral to transportation,” as officials have called it.
Many years ago, train depots served much the same purpose. Salt Lake City has preserved two of these — the Union Pacific and Rio Grande terminals downtown. Their grand main halls, far more ornate than what was required to handle daily train traffic back then, featured murals and other decorations exhibiting local pride and telling travelers a bit about where they had arrived.
The new airport will serve much the same purpose in a more modern way.
It is functional enough to handle an expansion of the city’s already impressive list of direct overseas flights and domestic connections. But it also contains impressive artwork, including “The Canyon,” a representation of the state’s many canyons that fills the size of a football field, and “The Falls,” an 80-foot sculpture meant to evoke thoughts of a waterfall in a canyon.
Air travelers are far more harried and distracted than train travelers of old, but these amenities are bound to calm them and make them curious about where they have landed.
The airport is the largest and most expensive public works project ever attempted in Utah, coming in at $4.1 billion, but it will cost taxpayers nothing. Airports are funded by user fees and bonds. Air travelers, for the most part, pay the tab, and they do so without feeling much impact in terms of airfare. Utah taxpayers, however, will benefit from easier access to distant locations and the economic development that is sure to follow.
And speaking of vision, it’s important to give a nod to previous city leaders, who did more than just dream of the future. Sixteen years ago, they built a tunnel under the airport’s taxiway, using an $8 million grant, in anticipation of this project. Now, that tunnel will connect the new south concourse with the north concourse, featuring moving sidewalks. Because it was built in 2004, it cost less than it would today, and it made the phased construction of the airport much easier.
The benefits of a new airport may be hard to imagine at a time when economic activity has slowed to a trickle and the few flights coming and going from the city are half-full. But we are confident they will become evident soon enough, and that this facility — an anomaly at a time when virtually no one is building airports — will quickly become a source of local pride.