In the spotlight: Salt Lake City International Airport
Salt Lake City has been one of the Midwest’s key transportation centres for over 150 years, firstly due the railroad and in more recent times because of its airport, and current executive director, Bill Wyatt, has no doubt that this lofty status will be cemented and strengthened by the opening of effectively a new gateway over the next four years, writes Joe Bates.
Being built on the same site as the existing facility, the first phase of the new Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) is slated to open on September 15.
It includes a new state-of-the-art central terminal; the first phase openings of Concourse A (South Concourse) and Concourse B (North Concourse) initially with 25 and 20 gates respectively; a 990ft long tunnel connecting the two new facilities; a 3,600-vehicle capacity parking garage; and a new two-level roadway.
The new additions are the key projects of SLC’s $4.1 billion Airport Redevelopment Program (ARP), which is designed to address the Utah gateway’s operational needs, existing seismic requirements and security standards at the same time as creating one of the world’s most modern and distinctive airports.
When fully onboard they will equip the airport to handle around 38 million passengers per annum, which might not be appreciated for a couple of years now due to the fall in traffic caused by the coronavirus crisis, but make no mistake about it the extra capacity will be needed as SLC has been operating above its design capacity for over a decade.
Indeed, a record 26.7 million passengers (+6%) passed through SLC in 2019 even though the airport’s facilities were only designed to handle 10mppa.
And such has been the upward trajectory in passenger numbers since 2010 – when formulating SLC’s current capital development programme the airlines projected growth of 1.5% to 2% per annum and the reality has been more like 5% to 6% – that Concourse B was added to the already underway first phase of its ARP in 2016.
Wyatt, who leads the Salt Lake City Department of Airports, says: “Without doubt, the new facilities are needed as they will transform the airport’s operational efficiency, set new customer service standards and enhance safety and security.
“They will also finally put us in the position to be able to attract new airlines to Salt Lake City and expand our route network, which is something we have been hindered from doing in the past by the capacity and operational restrictions of the existing facilities.”
The new facilities will also be designed to withstand earthquakes up to 7.2 in magnitude, which was a top priority in the planning process as Salt Lake City is located in an active earthquake zone.
In fact a 5.2 magnitude quake struck SLC on March 18 this year forcing it to close for six hours while air traffic controllers temporarily relocated to a new facility while the ATC tower was made safe, sensitive security checkpoint equipment was reset and staff carried out an inspection of the airport site.
Luckily the damage caused to SLC was restricted to a few ceiling tiles and a burst water pipe, and Wyatt is quick to point out that the airport’s well drilled response on how to respond to an earthquake ensured that it was up and running again within a few hours.
“One of the reasons we are building a new airport is to bring it up to 21st Century seismic standards, and knowing that we will soon have facilities capable of withstanding a 7.2 magnitude earthquake is reassuring, and I am sure will also be welcomed by our passengers,”
Unique new terminal
Built to allow SLC to cope with rising demand, the new terminal is expected to take the passenger experience to another level courtesy of bigger, better and more user-friendly facilities and a design that is said to reflect “Utah’s natural beauty”.
In addition to more space and an easier to navigate check-in hall, customs and immigration facilities, the terminal will boast a single centralised security checkpoint for all departing passengers, a plethora of new technologies, and around 30 new retail and F&B outlets chosen to complement rather than compete with each other.
Wyatt believes that passengers will be particularly impressed with the new security checkpoint, which he assures will be kitted out with the latest technology in automated screening lanes provided by Vanderlande Industries.
The new airport will also include a ‘sterile corridor’ that allows some gates to simultaneously handle domestic and international flights and impressive new SkyClub facilities for Delta’s business and first-class passengers.
However, arguably the thing that will make the biggest favourable impression on visitors is the Main Plaza with its sense of place Utah canyon wall (The Canyon) and giant ‘window wall’ through which passengers will be able to see the magnificent Wasatch Mountains in the background.
In this respect, Wyatt says that SLC has really listened to local residents and given the community what it wanted in terms of building a new airport that reflects the beauty of Utah.
Indeed, it was a key brief of architect, HOK, which actively worked with The Canyon creator, Gordon Huether, to ensure that his artwork was integrated into the design of the terminal.
Restoring confidence in aviation
Right, you’ve heard what’s coming later this year and why SLC needs the new facilities, but how confident is Wyatt that his airport will bounce back from the current COVID-19 crisis and, just as importantly for people’s livelihoods, how long does he think the recovery will take?
Wyatt has absolutely no hesitation in stating that SLC will bounce back, citing over a decade of year-on-year growth prior to COVID-19,
the fact that the airport is a key hub for Delta, the appeal of Salt Lake City, and aviation’s record of overcoming adversity as reasons why the good times will return for Utah’s gateway to the world.
But he is less sure about the timescale, believing it may take SLC and aviation longer to recover than people would like, despite his airport arguably still faring better today than many others.
He also believes that the demand for leisure travel will return much more quickly than for business, feeling that there is already “pent up demand for personal travel” to visit friends and families, whereas economically challenged companies may take business travel off of the agenda for some time.
“I think we could be looking at anywhere between three to five years to return to anywhere near last year’s traffic figures,” says Wyatt. “I could, of course, be wrong, and hope that I am and that the industry recovers much quicker, but this will very much depend on public confidence and the country opening up for business again.
“We will have to restore people’s faith in flying and allay their fears about whether it is safe to travel through our terminals. In this regards, it will be vital that we get the message out that we are doing all we can to ensure the safety and wellbeing of passengers and, of course, airport staff, both now and when the current travel restrictions are lifted.”
For now, SLC, like most major airports in the US and across the globe, has introduced a number of measures and processes and procedures to protect passengers and staff from COVID-19.
Wyatt says that virtually everyone working at SLC now wears a mask and that the airport’s COVID-19 prevention measures include social distancing – reinforced by signs and messages throughout the airport as well as by new plexiglass ‘shields’ in hold-rooms and at ticket counters, gates and other passenger processing areas – and the introduction of hand sanitising stations across the campus.
He notes that most US airlines have also introduced their own measures, which for many include requiring all passengers to wear face masks on flights, and that the TSA is looking at introducing temperature checks at airports. Frontier Airlines already carries out pre-boarding temperature screening at SLC.
Traffic and economic stability
A decade of year-on-year growth counts for nothing, of course, when it comes to COVID-19, so in an all too familiar story, SLC has seen its passenger numbers plummet in 2020 as people have been told to stay at home and put air travel on hold.
The result has been a 91% drop in passenger traffic in the first four months of the year. SLC’s runways haven’t been empty though, as most domestic destinations continue to be served by at least one flight a week as US airlines are required to maintain a network presence on all routes.
“We’ve lost frequencies rather than routes and load factors have fallen dramatically,” comments Wyatt. “To give you an idea of how this has translated into daily operations, we’ve gone from nine flights to JFK and 12 to Atlanta to about two a day, where a load factor of 25% would be considered good. It’s not ideal, but the connectivity is vital to Salt Lake City and the region.”
He believes that possibly a few green shoots of recovery have been witnessed by the doubling of passenger numbers using SLC in recent weeks, but as previously mentioned, feels that it could be some time before today’s 3,000 odd daily travellers returns to the 26,000 to 30,000 it was before COVID-19.
The traffic downturn has severely dented the airport’s 2020 revenues, but Wyatt expects SLC to have the financial reserves to be able to ride out the current storm without having to furlough or layoff any of his 480 staff.
A year of promised emergency relief funds from the federal government courtesy of the recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act will certainly help, of course, but Wyatt notes that SLC is a lean organisation with historically one of the lowest costs per passenger enplanement in the US (Under $4 in 2019).
“We are in a really strong cash position, and the view of the City of Salt Lake is that this is not a permanent condition and that we will come out of it one day, so we have placed a premium on maintaining staff,” he says.
“The CARES funding will last until April 2021 and my feeling is that although things won’t be back to normal by then, they will be significantly better.”
Bringing forward next phase of SLC’s development
Wyatt reveals that the current decline in traffic has actually given him and the Salt Lake City Department of Airports the opportunity to bring the next phase of the ARP forward and even rescale it to meet demand.
Bringing it forward is possible because it now seems unlikely that SLC will have to keep any gates open in the existing terminal to compensate for those lost in the impending demolition of Concourses F, C and D before work can begin on the second phase development of the new North and South Concourses.
“With maximising gate numbers no longer looking like a priority, for now anyway, we may end up rephasing the second part of our development programme to finish it 2024, two years earlier than originally planned, as it will be a lot easier to complete if we don’t have to build around existing facilities because we need to keep gates open,” explains Wyatt.
“The change in circumstances means that we also have more flexibility to scale the second phase to whatever business demands. I am happy about this as none of us really know where things are heading. So, we can now build another 40 or 50 gates or we can build 20, depending on growth.”
Describing the differences between the first and second phases of the ARP, Wyatt says the former was like building on a green field site as there was “nothing to be moved out of the way”, whereas “everything has to be moved out of the way” in the second phase.
The current plan is to add an additional 22-gates to Concourse A and 11-gates to Concourse B in the second phase of the ARP, which is due to take place between 2021-2026. Whatever path is taken, with the exception of the airfield, SLC will effectively be a completely new airport upon completion of the ARP, with brand new facilities replacing the bulldozed old terminal and its concourses.
Like most people, Wyatt is working from home at the moment, although he still visits SLC’s construction sites once or twice a week to check up on the progress of the ARP to make sure everything is on course for the big September 2020 opening.
He admits that new technology and video conferencing tools such as Zoom for team meetings have made doing his job remotely easier than he expected, but he certainly has no desire to do it any longer than is absolutely necessary.
“The current situation we all find ourselves in is far from perfect, but we just have to make the best of it and eventually we will all come through it, and for us, that means a brand new airport in just a few months’ time that is really going to amaze people, particularly in terms of its grandeur and scale.
“What do I miss most about not going into work? I think it’s the water cooler conversations with colleagues where you can really catch up with people. On the other hand, an upshot is that whenever I call someone now, they are always there to answer the ‘phone!”
Driving SLC’s development
Park Assist has been awarded the Parking Guidance System (PGS) contract for Salt Lake City International Airport’s latest parking 3,600-space parking garage.
The new facility is equipped with Park Assist’s camera based M4 PGS, which is designed to decrease the time motorists spend searching for parking spaces, therefore easing traffic congestion in the garage and increasing customer satisfaction levels.
The camera based M4 smart sensor system uses colour-coded LED lights to guide drivers to vacant spaces; triggered to turn from red to green when spaces become available, these lights remove all confusion from the parking journey.
And upon returning to the garage, travellers are promised an equally effortless experience finding their car by utilising Park Assist’s Find Your Car software add-on to locate their vehicles.
“As the airport transforms for the future, Park Assist hopes to deliver an equally innovative parking experience,” notes regional account manager, Jeff Sparrow.
Site work is scheduled to begin in May and the installation is slated for completion for SLC’s grand opening in September 2020.