An airport is a fast-paced and oftentimes stressful experience as passengers run around making sure they reach their flights in time.

But Gordon Huether pictures a completely different experience once Salt Lake City International Airport travelers reach a new central tunnel currently under construction.

"When we drop you down into this tunnel, I'm going to take you into a whole other world. I'm going to bring the temperature down for you," he says, as he stares down the length of a vacant tunnel in front of him.

The world he envisions, named the "River Tunnel," is calm, cool and very blue. There are "miles and miles" of aluminum tubing, akin to "The Canyon" art installation he designed for the airport's main terminal. He likens this project to a dream in which you're walking at the bottom of a gently-moving river, while soothing music — curated for the experience — plays all around you.

When travelers awake from the dream at Concourse B, they'll reach "Canyon 2.0" and the old airport's world map artwork.

"The whole idea is that it's a holistic, fully immersive experience that will make you maybe forget a little bit about being in an airport," Huether adds. "And you'll be thinking more about celebrating the natural beauty of Utah."

A rendering of “River Tunnel,” by Gordon Huether, is displayed inside the central tunnel, where the piece will be located, during a media tour at the Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. Once completed, the tunnel will open another way for passengers to transit between Concourse A and Concourse B and eventually to a future Concourse C. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

However, this new 1,175-foot tunnel may also ease some travelers' nerves because of its convenience alone.

Since the new airport opened in 2020, many have vented about the distance between Concourse A and Concourse B. In fact, airport director Bill Wyatt said that is among the top complaints received in the first year of the new airport's existence.

When the new tunnel opens — anticipated to be the fall of 2024 — travelers headed to Concourse B can simply walk to the entrance of the main terminal, through the river experience Huether imagines, and straight to the concourse without a detour around Concourse A. The route through the first concourse to the mid-concourse tunnel extends the trip for many Concourse B users.

This shortcut will help reduce the distance from the security lines to the boarding gate by about a third, in some cases, said Mike Williams, the program director for the Salt Lake Airport Redevelopment Program. People checking in and heading to, say, Gate B22, will benefit the most right now; but it will also benefit the future expansion of Concourse B because that growth extends the building farther from the mid-concourse tunnel.

There are also six moving walkways to make the trip go even faster if you don't want to walk through the whole tunnel.

This map shows the central tunnel's location in relation to Concourse A and Concourse B at Salt Lake City International Airport. The tunnel is expected to be open in October 2024.
This map shows the central tunnel's location in relation to Concourse A and Concourse B at Salt Lake City International Airport. The tunnel is expected to be open in October 2024. | Salt Lake City International Airport

Wyatt adds that the roughly $80 million project will also thin the traffic coming through Concourse A because it is a mix of travelers using both concourses at the moment, which is also influenced by Delta Airlines flyers using the airport to connect with another flight.

"It depends on where your gate is, certainly, but the lack of crowds will be the biggest and most-notable feature," he said. "I think it will improve connect times significantly for people."

While most of the bare tunnel itself is finished, the biggest holdup now is constructing a connection from underground to Concourse B. Huether will then come in and complete his art installation once that's complete. All of it is on schedule for the new central tunnel to open in October 2024.

A growing airport

Another feature of the central tunnel, which most people won't see, is a faster system that will zip bags from planes landing at Concourse B back to the baggage carousel at the main terminal in 10 minutes.

It is one of several new airport features as the $4.5 billion facility grows. Construction remains ongoing for the 22-gate Concourse A-East project; the first four gates of the second-phase extension are expected to open next spring and the rest of the facility is expected to open by the end of 2023. The extension will also feature 19 new restaurants and retail shops, airport officials announced in May.

Mike Williams, program director of the Salt Lake City International Airport Redevelopment Program, gestures toward ongoing construction on the central tunnel at the airport in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. Once completed, the tunnel will open another way for passengers to transit between Concourse A and Concourse B and eventually to a future Concourse C. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Airport administrators also plan to build nine more gates to Concourse B, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2025. The vast majority of the money for the projects have come from the airline industry, Wyatt said.

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Meanwhile, the central tunnel is considered the first piece of planning that goes well beyond 2025. Crews are also including the wells needed for a future train that will someday connect the two concourses, as well as a third, once the future Concourse C is built.

Wyatt explains that there are no target dates for all of those other additions only because the need is based on passenger volumes. That said, current projects have the airport reaching the target passenger volumes by the end of the decade, which will begin the planning process for the third concourse

"We never imagined that a few years ago," he said. "I think we could see endless activity here."