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Pandemic could shorten Salt Lake airport rebuild by 2 years, save $300M

Installation of Gordon Huether’s “The Canyon” has started as construction continues at the new Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 22, 2020.
Installation of Gordon Huether’s “The Canyon” has started as construction continues at the new Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 22, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When the global COVID-19 pandemic nearly turned the Salt Lake City International Airport into a ghost town, officials overseeing the airport’s massive rebuild saw a possible silver lining.

Suddenly, a decades-old airport that had struggled for years with capacity issues saw daily demand shrink dramatically. And while that’s terrible for ticket sales, concessions and just about everyone in the airline business, airport officials saw an opportunity to not only shorten the airport’s $4.1 billion redevelopment by two years, but also save millions.

Bill Wyatt, the airport’s executive director, recently laid out the plan for Salt Lake City’s Airport Advisory Board, explaining how the airport would complete its multiyear redevelopment in the same size and scope, “except it will be two years faster and up to $300 million cheaper.”

To maximize available gates, airport officials had originally planned to demolish the airport’s old terminals and concourses in a phased manner, after the new airport’s first concourses open to the public, slated for Sept. 15. Now, because of less demand, Wyatt said they’ll be able to demolish all of the airport’s old facilities faster.

“What we’re proposing to do, instead of keeping old Concourse B and old Concourse C open (during construction), is tear down the existing airport facilities after the new SLC phase one is open,” Wyatt told the advisory board. “Tear them all down at once.”

“What that means is we won’t actually have to use any parts of the old airport after October of this year,” Wyatt told the Deseret News. “And so we can tear it all down, and it won’t be in our way as we do the second phase of the airport.”

Now, Wyatt said the entire airport project’s completion is slated for December of 2024, rather than early 2027.

For a gigantic construction project — which saw costs increase amid a red-hot construction market before the pandemic hit — that condensed timeline is a great opportunity to save money, and headaches of trying to demolish old facilities and build at the same time.

But, Wyatt said, the plan “is not an easy thing. It comes with a certain amount of pain.”

Airlines have been pushing for more gates, faster, “and I love their enthusiasm,” Wyatt told the airport board. “But my job, as well, is to look out for Salt Lake City, and I think this approach is going to leave us with greater flexibility, less (cost), faster delivery. And I just think we’re going to be in really good shape.”

Before the coronavirus changed the world, roughly 30,000 passengers were walking through Salt Lake City International Airport’s door every day, Wyatt said. That number then plummeted to roughly 1,500 passengers a day — which, ahead of Memorial Day weekend, was up to about 4,100 on Friday, Wyatt told the Deseret News.

Though the airport is seeing a bit more travelers as states begin to open, Wyatt said airport officials don’t expect to return to their typical demand for at least three to five years. By then, the airport’s redevelopment should be complete.

But if demand begins to spike earlier than expected, Wyatt said the airport can use a concept called “hard stand,” or parking airplanes in the airfield and transporting passengers from the plane by bus to the airport.

“It’s not ideal,” Wyatt acknowledged, “but it’s a short-term way to absorb increases that maybe are not anticipated.”

Wyatt said the aim is to balance “providing as much capacity as is reasonably possible without the city having to take too much risk.”

“We’ve been talking about what happens if there is too much demand,” Wyatt said. “The other side of that story is what happens if there is too little?”

Wyatt is confident airport officials will finish the rebuild, despite economic challenges brought on by COVID-19. The airport has “most of the money in the bank,” Wyatt said. And the airport got about $82.4 million in economic relief from the federal government amid the global coronavirus pandemic to avoid laying off its workforce.

Heading into the future, Wyatt said the new airport, once it opens in September, will be a positive experience for COVID-19-wary travelers. Not to mention, he added, the new airport is “just so much bigger,” so it will be easy for travelers to social distance.

From self bag tagging and electronic board passes, to motion-sensor soap dispensers and sink faucets, Wyatt said the new airport will have several new additions to ensure safe and clean travel. They airport will also have disinfecting devices that will clip on to the end of moving walkway rails so they’ll be sanitized frequently.

“It will feel different than people had anticipated an airport will feel,” Wyatt said, “but we also want to make sure we’re doing everything possible to keep our friends and neighbors safe.”