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Salt Lake City International Airport gets $82M in COVID-19 federal relief

Will it be enough? ‘I wish I knew,’ airport director says

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A plane arrives at Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 20, 2013. The Salt Lake City International Airport has more flights arriving on time than any of the nation’s other large airports.

A plane arrives at Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City in this file photo. The airport will be receiving about $82.4 million in economic relief from the federal government amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City International Airport will be getting about $82.4 million in economic relief from the federal government amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

The award is part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act airport grant program, aiming to give immediate relief to struggling U.S. families, workers and businesses.

Salt Lake City’s airport will be getting a slice of the CARES Act’s roughly $10 billion awarded to commercial and general aviation airports across the U.S. as airlines and other travel industries languish amid COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, lockdowns and travel restrictions that have taken effect across the globe. Airlines also got roughly $58 billion from that package.

“This helps keep us afloat until business begins to pick up again,” Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Salt Lake City International Airport, told the Deseret News Wednesday. “Keeping the whole system of airports in the U.S. afloat is really what this is all about, so we’re grateful.”

From airline rents and fees, to rental car fees, to concessions, “everything’s been hammered” by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wyatt said, and it’s crippling the entire airline industry and airports across the world that rely on that revenue to balance their budgets.

At Salt Lake City’s airport, it’s no different. Revenues are way down. Wyatt said typically the airport sees 22,000 to 26,000 passengers walk through airport doors a day — but Wednesday, there were only 1,500.

“It looks like a ghost town,” he said.

The Salt Lake City International Airport is still in the midst of its massive, now $4.1 billion redevelopment. The airport’s first debt service payment for the redesign, not paid by any taxpayer dollars but rather the airport’s own revenue, is due this year. That bill will be $92 million, according to Wyatt.

The redevelopment project is still on track with the first phase of the project scheduled to open to the public on Sept. 20. Wyatt said construction crews are still hard at work, practicing social distancing as they labor.

Asked if the $82 million in one-time money will be enough to carry the Salt Lake airport and its expensive rebuild through the pandemic and its economic storm clouds, Wyatt said, “I wish I knew.”

“It’s a real shot in the arm, and we deeply appreciate it,” Wyatt said of the relief funds, “but it really depends, in the end, on how long this lasts and the depth of the economic challenges afterward.”

The extent of COVID-19’s economic damage is the big question facing airports and airlines. And the impact on the Salt Lake City International Airport is dependent not just on how the pandemic plays out in Utah, but across the nation and the world, Wyatt said.

“You’re only as good as your neighbor,” he said.

Wyatt said it’s currently “hard to forecast” the depth and scope of the pandemic’s economic impact, but he’s predicting a “slow restart” to the economy as the case curve flattens and more people begin to travel.

In the meantime, Wyatt said the Salt Lake airport is “in a pretty good space” with its current cash balance.

“In the short run, I feel pretty good,” he said, “but, again, it really depends on how long this goes.”

Wyatt said airport officials haven’t yet decided exactly how they’ll be using the $82 million from the CARES Act. He noted there’s a “whole set of rules and regulations” around how it’s used — including capping any staff cuts at 10%. Wyatt said it’s “unlikely” the airport will lay off any employees, noting layoffs can be more expensive long term to rehire and retrain a new workforce down the road.

In the end, Wyatt said that $82 million will likely go toward simply “keeping the doors open” and continuing operations until travel restrictions lift.

“We’ve got our shoulder to the wheel, doing everything we can to complete this project on time and keep the airport open and operating, working very closely with the airlines and our other partners,” he said. “And at the same time we’re doing everything we possibly can to keep people safe.”