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As airlines receive grants from Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill, Salt Lake airport is flying steady

A Delta plane departs from a hangar at the Salt Lake City International Airport.
A Delta plane departs from a hangar at the Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 11, 2021. Nancy Volmer, the airport’s director of communication and marketing, reported international, nonstop travel is set to reopen this summer.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The air travel industry is receiving a boost from recently passed legislation, but Utah’s airport hasn’t experienced much turbulence even with less travel and increased restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the pandemic hit hard for many communities, businesses and the travel industry, Delta Air Lines and Salt Lake City International Airport both reported travel to states with ample outdoor recreation, such as Utah and Colorado, or beachy areas like Florida, haven’t stopped people from traveling safely as they try to shake off cabin fever.

“The Salt Lake airport has been operating almost close to regular capacity, as it was before pre-pandemic times in 2019 numbers, with about 85% to 90% restored operations and marketing,” said a Delta Air Lines’ spokesman.

Airlines are in line for $14 billion in grants and loans in exchange for promises not to furlough or lay off employees until the end of September.

A Delta representative also voiced the company’s appreciation for the federal government’s support over the past year.

“A year ago we never could have foreseen the length and long-term impacts the COVID-19 pandemic would have on our industry. Since the beginning, Congress and the administration have shown continuous and bipartisan support for airline workers and most recently a nationwide vaccination effort. We remain grateful and are confident that these efforts will allow Delta and the entire airline industry to support the global economic recovery.”

The Dallas Morning News reported that American Airlines, based in Fort Worth, Texas, is canceling furlough notices sent to 13,000 employees after Congress passed the $1.9 trillion aid package.

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents 15,000 American Airlines pilots, issued a statement in gratitude for HR1319 passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden as the American Rescue Plan, noting that keeping planes flying can also allow the airline to help the economy and support vaccine distribution.

“We are grateful that our colleagues are no longer facing imminent furlough,” said Capt. Eric Ferguson, president of the Allied Pilots Association, in the statement. “More than anything, we want to do our part to help get America flying again. And to that end, to the members of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and to President Biden, we say a heartfelt ‘thank you.’”

With airlines being helped through federal funds, air travel industry and airports are now waiting for other countries to reopen as the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions gradually get rolled back.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated Americans can travel to see their grandmas.
People walk through the Salt Lake City International Airport on Thursday, March 11, 2021. Nancy Volmer, the airport’s director of communication and marketing, reported international, nonstop travel is set to reopen this summer.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Delta representatives said the airline didn’t need to implement large-scale layoffs or any furloughs due to the “selfless sacrifices” of its employees and to the company’s finance team that found Delta the liquidity it needed in the free market.

“The creative solutions that Delta was able to engage in, and the way that the employees kind of rallied together ... strengthened Delta to emerge in a premier spot there,” said Delta’s spokesman.

Delta offers an early retirement package, according to the spokesman, and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, 20% of the company’s base employees took the package. The company also attributed its success to employees, who, when offered, took voluntary long-term leaves of absence that ranged from one month to a year.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said in his January 2021 memo to employees, “Your passion, professionalism and hard work have positioned Delta to successfully lead our industry into recovery in 2021.”

Nancy Volmer, Salt Lake City International Airport’s director of communication and marketing, reported international, nonstop travel is expected to open back up this summer, while travel to Paris should be available again by spring of 2021 and to Amsterdam by June 2021.

Volmer said the airport is seeing more people pass through its doors, but it’s still not back up to pre-pandemic levels. Currently, it’s not international travel that’s the draw, she said, but Utah itself.

“I’m not sure if it’s tied to the vaccine. I think ties to the fact that we have the great outdoors accessible here. So we have a lot of people, really, because they want to go in the outdoors and we have these wonderful national parks that people can visit,” she said.

The airport saw about two-thirds of the volume of passengers on a Sunday early this month as it had on the same date last year, mainly due to a high level of traveling skiers, Volmer said. That number didn’t include the many passengers who flew through Salt Lake City to connecting flights.

Volmer said that though the airport is part of the city, it doesn’t receive any funds from taxpayer dollars. Instead, it is self sustaining through rentals of shop spaces inside, the fees the airlines pay to land there and the spaces leased to rental car companies.

She said the airport did see its tenants, especially those involved with concessions, feeling the toll of the pandemic, and the decrease in passengers meant a decrease in hours for employees to work.

Even though Gov. Spencer Cox has voiced support for legislation lifting the statewide mask by April 10, Volmer said nothing will change for the airport.

“There’s a federal mandate to wear a mask at airports. I believe it’s in other transportation hubs, too, like trains and things like that, but under that federal mandate we’ll continue to require passengers and employees to wear masks,” she said. “When I come into work there’s a machine that I stop by and have my temperature taken.”

The airport will also keep up policies limiting public access, meaning other than employees or tenants, only passengers will be to enter.

The dismantling of the old and the construction of the new gates and concourses were actually facilitated by the decreased volume of passengers due to the airport not needing as many gates to remain open, which Volmer called a “silver lining” of the pandemic.

“Because we couldn’t construct that second stage until we tore down the old facilities, but that by doing that, we’re basically going to be able to open up phase two quicker and also save some money along the way,” she said.