On Tuesday, the Salt Lake International Airport will open all of its planned east wing of Concourse A, adding 13 new gates to what already is the first completely new hub airport in the United States this century.

Airport officials say the new facility handled 26 million passengers in 2022, sending them to 93 destinations on 320 daily departures. That included regular nonstop flights to London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. 

What people don’t know is that the pandemic almost turned this growing international hub into a much smaller regional airport.

To understand why, you need a quick refresher course in what it was like early in 2020. I know you think you remember, but time can dull things.

The Deseret News-KSL editorial board met with Bill Wyatt, the airport’s director, in March of that year to talk about the COVID-19 virus we all knew would surely come to the Wasatch Front, and likely through the airport.

Wyatt told us crews were regularly wiping down railings on moving sidewalks, door handles, restroom fixtures and buttons on elevators. High-touch surfaces were being “double deep cleaned,” whatever that meant. 

In retrospect, those memories are tinged with the sepia of naïveté.

What Wyatt remembers most is that, as the virus spread and the economy shut down, the old airport went from an average of 29,000 passengers entering each day to about 1,500. Hustle and bustle became echoes and silence.

And he was six months away from a Sept. 15 opening of the first phase of what would be a new $5.2 billion airport.

It was, he told the same editorial board this week, not untoward to wonder about the future of commercial aviation and of large planes carrying passengers over long distances. And so, wonder, he did. 

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“We decided, OK, No. 1, we’re going to open, because we have no choice,” Wyatt said. “We’ve already borrowed funds to build this project. … We’re going to be paying on this debt anyway. We might as well use what we’ve already built.”

But with the world shutting down, and with the prospects of a quick vaccine looking grim, he and other airport officials decided to hedge their bets by creating some offramps.

“The offramps were, if it (the economy) never comes back, we’ll have a beautiful little airport that will serve Salt lake City, essentially, or northern Utah.

“So, we actually developed a plan that would have had the airport as you see it today (without the newly completed wing of concourse A) … and that would be the end of it if things didn’t return within a reasonable period of time, so that we wouldn’t overspend in building an airport that was bigger than the market would handle.”

But, of course, a vaccine appeared, the economy reopened and air travelers did return. 

Wyatt said they returned faster to Salt Lake International than they did to many other airports. This was, he said, “largely because people felt more comfortable coming here. They could go skiing. They could go to the parks, be outdoors and feel a little safer.”

All of this, notwithstanding the long walk to Concourse B, something Wyatt said is mostly a complaint from locals, not visitors.

Historical perspective is always enlightening. With the help of the website newspapers.com, I came across a Deseret News story from Jan. 9, 1959. The occasion was a Chamber of Commerce meeting the week before voters were to consider a $2.5 million bond to build a new airport terminal — the first phase of the one that lasted until it was razed to make way for the current one in 2020. E.H. Azbill of the chamber was pleading with business leaders to vote yes.

“Salt Lake City is either going to be a metropolitan city with modern facilities or a metropolitan city with outdated horse and buggy facilities,” he said. “A new Salt Lake City Airport terminal is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

The bond passed by a landslide. 

I suppose Azbill might have come across to some at that meeting as a little overwrought. In retrospect, he sounds like a visionary. 

The lesson of history is to never bet against growth in air travel to the Wasatch Front. The next step after Tuesday will be two more phases, including the build-out of Concourse B. Already, Wyatt said, 16 more gates have been added to the original plans.

In addition to gates, the airport has many more restaurants and retail stories in the works, including outlets for some popular local retailers, such as Cotopaxi and Weller Book Works. The airport recently announced a dozen new concession stands for the buildout of Concourse B.

When that is done, the airport will have gone from 52 jet-bridged gates to 94 in its first seven years, with Concourse C and a connecting train on the horizon.

Today, unlike those uncertain days in the early spring of 2020, Wyatt can look past his unused “offramps” and declare he is “bullish” about the future.