SALT LAKE CITY — It’s something no other hub airport in the U.S. has pulled off in the current century.

After a span of six years of construction — preceded by about two decades of planning — the Salt Lake City International Airport is about to open its brand-new, $4.1 billion airport on Tuesday, starting with a massive new terminal and its first concourse.

By the end of the year, a second concourse will open, and the old airport will begin to be razed to make way for the east side of Concourse A to be built right over the top of it.

What this means for Utahns and travelers across the globe isn’t just a brand-new, shiny building to replace a more inefficient and aging facility. To airport officials here and nationally, it’s so much more.

“I would dream to see in my career other cities across the country replicate what Salt Lake City has done,” said Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International-North America, a national organization based in Washington, D.C., that represents U.S. and Canadian airports.

“Salt Lake City has taken an airport and turned it into a modern, 21st century facility,” Burke said. “America’s airports need to be modernized, and Salt Lake City has been on the cutting-edge of that.”

To Burke — and Utah government officials — Salt Lake City’s new airport means the portal from Utah to the rest of the world just got much bigger — and with so much more room to grow. It means the state has solidified its foothold in the global air travel industry — and therefore positioned itself well for future economic growth as a now much more appealing travel touch point, destination, and home base for businesses.

To state leaders, that’s a huge step for their ambitions to brand Utah as not just the “Crossroads of the West,” but the “Crossroads of the World.”

But as masterfully designed, impressive and beautiful as Salt Lake City’s new airport is, an invisible force has sucked some of the air out of its grand opening.

The global coronavirus pandemic has led nationwide flights to plummet, threatening the entire airline industry. After a year of averaging about 2.4 million passengers a day nationwide, that dropped to a low of 87,534 passengers nationwide during the height of COVID-19 closures on April 14, according to Transportation Security Administration checkpoint travel numbers.

In February, Salt Lake City International Airport saw a record high of 30,000 passengers each weekend. But when the pandemic hit home in Utah and the rest of the U.S., that number death spiraled to barely 1,500.

Over the past several months, more travelers have begun trickling back to airplanes. On Aug. 31, nationwide air travel was up to 711,178 passengers, according to the TSA. But that’s still less than a third of the demand U.S. airports were seeing this time last year.

To Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Salt Lake City International Airport, the COVID-19 pandemic is worse than either of the two other major disruptions to the commercial aviation industry that he’s lived through as an airport director.

Worse than 9/11. Worse than the Great Recession.

The pandemic has brought on not just economic hardship that’s similar to what airlines and travelers experienced during the Great Recession, but also the fear and uncertainty of air travel that followed Sept. 11, 2001 — but on a much more long-term basis, Wyatt said.

“The thing about the pandemic is it’s global — it’s affecting everybody all at the same time. And it’s invisible. You don’t see the virus, but it’s everywhere around us, and so that has really affected the confidence of the traveling public,” Wyatt said.

But still, as he has lived through other downturns, Wyatt said he feels “pretty bullish about our future.”

“This isn’t going to last forever,” he said. “I don’t have any doubt the industry will survive, because I think it’s just too important to the U.S. and the world, really, to have commercial aviation. So I think probably the biggest question is, ‘What’s it going to look like?’”

Construction is complete on the elevated roadway leading to the terminal entrances at the new Salt Lake City International Airport on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Silver linings

Airlines and airports have been forced to confront a new reality: one that requires them to take extraordinary measures like drastically reducing aircraft maximum capacity so there is enough space between seats to give travelers reassurance that their flights are safe. And most airlines have now begun requiring face coverings, making masks the new normal in airports across the country.

To Burke, Salt Lake City’s new airport opening comes at a perfect time — when space and cleanliness are more important than ever.

“Your timing was impeccable,” he said.

In a strange way, Salt Lake City’s new airport is ushering a new era of air travel, when the importance of personal space, cleanliness and hygiene will likely outlive the COVID-19 crisis. So there have been a number of happy coincidences and silver linings that have surfaced as the COVID-19 pandemic aligned with Salt Lake City’s new airport opening.

For travelers traveling to, from and through Salt Lake City’s new airport, space will not be an issue in the massive new terminal and concourses. Everything is spacious — from the bathrooms, to the seating areas, to the unique Greeting Room designed especially for large family greeting parties that are common in Utah, especially for families welcoming home loved ones returning from missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There’s also been logistical and budgetary silver linings. The dramatic drop in passenger numbers allowed Salt Lake airport officials to bump up the next phase of the airport’s construction by two years — now on track to save about $300 million.

Instead of having to operate both the new and old airport as previously planned, the lower demand will allow all operations to move into the new facility by the end of October and pave the way for demolition of the old airport to begin sooner.

Salt Lake City International Airport

But looking beyond the pandemic, Burke said Salt Lake City’s grand airport opening has positioned Utah’s capital well into the future for air travel — meaning the state will reap economic benefits in the form of business and tourism growth for decades to come while other airports will struggle to keep up.

“The reality is, air travel will come back,” Burke said. “People will begin to travel. A vaccine will be found. ... The good news for Salt Lake City: You now have an airport that can handle it all. It might not be full now, but it will be full soon.”

Ticket kiosks are pictured inside the new Salt Lake City International Airport on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. The Salt Lake City Department of Airports is unveiling the large-scale art installations today and updating the public on construction progress 20 days prior to the Sept.15, 2020, opening. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Wyatt predicts the new airport, which is Delta’s fourth-largest hub, will help usher in nonstop flights to Asia.

“That’s something I can imagine in our future,” Wyatt said. “The natural assets of Utah will attract more tourism, and the burgeoning tech community here will definitely drive more traffic as well. But if we don’t have a new facility that’s efficient, we just can’t handle it all.”

Wyatt also predicted that airlines will likely scrap smaller, older aircraft to consolidate their maintenance costs.

“When the green light comes on again, the industry is going to be a lot smarter, and it’s going to get a lot smaller,” Wyatt said. “So Delta and big carriers are getting rid of their older aircraft, older planes that aren’t as efficient. It’s a good opportunity to reduce their fleet size.”

That could mean plane tickets are going to get more expensive as airlines must establish a new pricing structure when they’re expected to keep middle seats open to maintain passenger confidence in safety and cleanliness, Wyatt said.

“If the industry is smaller and demand rebuilds quickly, there will be more passengers than seats, and it’s entirely possible it could be more expensive,” he said, though he added he’s confident that when a vaccine is established airlines will likely “go back to flying relatively full planes.”

Salt Lake City International Airport

Burke said any city with a brand-new airport has a competitive “advantage.” Businesses “want to know that you can get your people and cargo in and out safely and efficiently, so a new airport is an asset to your company no matter what industry you’re in,” he said.

Still today, airports across the country struggle to provide comfortable, efficient and modern spaces for passengers to enjoy rather than just endure in their travels, Burke said. He called Salt Lake City’s new airport “ a window into what airports should look like.”

“Having a brand-spanking-new airport in Salt Lake City is a great example of what a community can do to work together to create an airport of the future,” Burke said.

“The reality is in the airport system in this country, the average terminal is about 40 years old. “And that was all pre-9/11,” he said, noting that passenger traffic and expectations surrounding air travel have soared since then.

Up until now, Denver’s International Airport that opened in 1995 has been the U.S.’s newest large hub airport built from scratch. Other airports like the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport— which opened its newest terminal in 2008 — have a similar linear layout to Salt Lake City’s new airport, with underground tunnels connecting parallel concourses (through Detroit has something Salt Lake City doesn’t: an indoor train). Airport officials consider the long, straight concourse design a “gold standard” for efficiently moving planes to and from gates while avoiding wait times and bottlenecks.

The new airport was designed by the global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm HOK, which has been behind multiple state-of-the-art projects, including New York City’s LaGuardia Airport’s new Terminal B.

A Delta departure gate in the new Salt Lake City International Airport’s main terminal in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. Media and dignitaries toured the facility that will open on Sept. 15, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Delta and Salt Lake City

Moments before the curtain was about to drop during an opening ceremony for Salt Lake City’s new airport last month, Wyatt admitted that the COVID-19 pandemic — which he called the “single-biggest financial hit to the commercial aviation industry in history” — gave him “feelings of concern” and doubts of whether the new airport would finish on time.

It would really come down to Delta, Salt Lake City’s largest stakeholder in the project, which calls Salt Lake City home to its fourth-largest hub.

“After consulting with Delta, the answer from Atlanta was, ‘Put your foot on the gas pedal,” Wyatt said.

Scott Santoro, vice president of sales for Delta’s West Coast, said the new airport “solidifies Delta as the airline for passengers to, from or through Salt Lake City for business and leisure travelers for many, many years to come.”

“It’s been very easy for us to look at this and slow it down due to the pandemic, but although the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our day-to-day business, it has not impacted our commitments to you, commitments to the community that we serve,” Santoro said during a recent opening ceremony for the airport. “Regardless of the level of service that we provide, the promises that we made to you and those we partner with we kept.”

Santoro said the pandemic has “allowed us to reprioritize our efforts and ... throttle forward and accelerate projects like this one.”

About 19,000 Delta employees took early retirement packages in July to “help Delta through this crisis,” he said.

Scott Santoro, vice president of Delta Air Lines, speaks to member of the media and dignitaries prior to their tour of the new Salt Lake City International Airport’s main terminal in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. The new airport is set to open on Sept. 15, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

In written responses to the Deseret News for this story, Santoro said Delta has “remained a dedicated and strategic partner to Salt Lake City” for the past 60 years, and intends to continue that relationship for another 60 years. He said Salt Lake City’s new airport “marks the first strategic milestone within our $12 billion investment to modernize our nation’s aviation infrastructure.”

“The SLC airport has and continues to be a valued hub for our network, enabling our customers to reach their travel destination with ease and comfort,” Santoro said.” This new SLC airport affords customers a more convenient travel experience, intertwined with luxury and innovation. We are so proud to have been a strong, strategic partner to the SLC airport and look forward to only strengthening our relationship with them, the city of Salt Lake, and the people of Utah for years to come.”

While the pandemic has “brought about challenges,” Santoro said, “Delta continues to deliver on strategies that streamline our business and operations.”

In a way, COVID-19 has allowed the airline to take a breath and look the future, he said.

“This period of time has allowed for us not to pause, but pull the future forward in a way we may have not been able to do so in the past,” he said, calling the new airport “one such example, and we were able to deliver this project both on budget and on time. As a significant hub location for our network, this new SLC airport holds tremendous value for our network at large and has and will continue to give Delta a competitive advantage in the region.”

To Burke, Delta doubled down on its commitment to Salt Lake City as an investment in the future — positioning itself to rebound swifter with a major hub that will be appealing to travelers as the economy bounces back.

Burke and Wyatt said Salt Lake City also has an advantage of being home to a hub airport — since hub airports have been better off financially amid the crisis than smaller airports throughout the country.

Delta carries about 60% of Salt Lake City’s total airport traffic.

Wyatt acknowledged Salt Lake City has put “a lot of our eggs in one basket” with Delta, but he said if he were to choose any partner, it would be that airline.

“I would much rather be in our position than almost anyone else,” Wyatt said. “If you’re going to identify a carrier ... I think they’re the strongest at the moment. They’re incredibly well managed. They made a really big commitment here, which I think is very important, but they’re also just a great hub carrier.”

‘Very big dream’

Maureen Riley, who was executive director of the Salt Lake City International Airport before she retired in 2017, is given much of the credit for the foresight and financial planning that enabled Utah’s capital to make the new airport possible. Wyatt credited her, his predecessor, with “squirreling away a big bundle of cash” so the airport could start the project in a financially strong position.

Members of the media and dignitaries tour the new Salt Lake City International Airport’s main terminal in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

“I don’t think very many people get to experience what I’ve experienced — to see a dream come true,” said Riley, who anticipated when she began saving money for the project in 2008 that she likely would retire before its completion. But she got to attend last month’s opening ceremony, where she was repeatedly credited for making it possible.

“It was a very big dream,” she said, crediting “so many other people involved,” their teamwork, and “untold hours of planning” bring it to fruition.

In 2014, when construction began, the Salt Lake airport was the only hub airport in the U.S. without debt. Now, Salt Lake City does have a fair amount of debt to help pay for it, but 19% was paid for with cash. Of the $4.1 billion price tag, over 60% is paid for using bonds, 5% is paid for with rental car fees, 4.5% is paid for by the Transportation Security Administration, which will provide funding for the baggage system, and 7.2% is paid for by fees collected from passenger airline tickets, according to airport officials.

Federal COVID-19 relief, through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, provided the Salt Lake City International Airport with a year’s worth of debt service payments, Wyatt said, which helps bring financial stability for the project. By the time phase two, which includes Concourse B, opens in 2024, Wyatt said he’s “pretty confident that the COVID-19 situation is going to be well resolved by that time.”

“So I would say we’re in a pretty enviable position,” he said. “We’re opening the new facility just as this business gets to take off again, literally and figuratively.”

Riley said when the pandemic hit and she pondered its impact on the project, she recalled that airport officials had “built in a couple of discrete stopping points” in case of an economic downtown, including one that could have been this fall with the opening of the first concourse.

“I thought, ‘Well, if they need to stop, they can stop,’” she said. But word of Delta’s commitment was “very encouraging.”

“All of us want to believe there will be a vaccine and we will get through this, and it may take longer than we know,” she said. “But this is a project of the future.”

Construction is complete on the elevated roadway leading to the terminal entrances at the new Salt Lake City International Airport on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. The Salt Lake City Department of Airports is unveiling the large-scale art installations today and updating the public on construction progress 20 days prior to the Sept.15, 2020, opening. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News