MIAMI– Salt Lake City, Utah has always had an important place in US Commercial Aviation history, and has maintained its importance through to the 21st Century. From a postage stamp size field of 100 acres in 1911 to its current size of 7,700 acres, the Airport has grown with the times and advancements and changes with the aviation industry itself. 

Now, it is time to grow again. The majority of buildings and structures are from the 1960s-1980s. The edifices are not seismically stable, nor big enough to cope with the number of passengers, both connecting and originating, or able to keep up with the airlines’ demand for more flights.

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A Little History

Originally, Salt Lake City was just a stop along the way for United Airlines’ (UA) Transcontinental route from New York to San Francisco, as well as the northern terminus for Western Air Express’ C.A.M. 8 route from Los Angeles, via Las Vegas.  From those small beginnings, SLC grew with United and Western’s fortunes, not to mention the region’s own growth spurts. 

World War II saw the field transformed into a training base and replacement depot for the US Army Air Force. The dawn of the Jet Age saw the building of Terminal 1 (back then it was the ONLY terminal) as well as airfield improvements including a Category II Instrument Landing System (ILS). 

These improvements and Western Airlines’ (WA) new nonstop service to Calgary, Canada enabled the airport to be renamed from the Salt Lake Municipal Airport to Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC).

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Deregulation and the 1980s brought more changes, with WA retrenching and redrawing its entire system to focus on a main hub at Salt Lake City, with a secondary hub at Los Angeles, thereby requiring more facilities. 

Luckily the airport had just expanded the main terminal with 2 concourses (A & B, or F and G as they are now known), so a second terminal (Terminal 2) was added, with one concourse originally, followed by a second (Concourse D) 2 years later, all to keep up with Western’s ever-expanding operations.

During the 1990s, more enhancements came, a new runway added, Delta Air Lines (which merged with Western in late 1986) added more flights and built the Salt Lake hub into a fortress of sorts, and the Airport Board began making renovations and plans for the then-upcoming Winter Olympics, scheduled for 2002. 

These last two decades, Salt Lake City International Airport has been serving 20 million passengers yearly, in a facility built to handle between 10 and 12 million.  SLC was bursting at the seams.  Delta and the other airlines added flights to more destinations and have maxed out the current facilities.  Something had to be done, and soon.

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Time for Something New

In January 2012, in his State of the City address, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker announced the launch of the Terminal Redevelopment Program for the Salt Lake City International Airport, to be phased in over the next 8-10 years, generate 24,000 jobs, and cost around US$1.8bn (the latest cost projection shows it to US$3.6bn). 

The new airport would have a single terminal, new concourses, new parking facilities, a new, expanded, and centralized light rail station, as well as the requisite support facilities to handle it all.  Request for Proposals went out and Holder-Big D Construction was selected as the construction manager at risk in October 2013. 

Work began immediately, with groundbreaking in July 2014.  The opening of the new terminal was originally slated to open in 2018, but like most major construction projects that have major changes partway through, that was pushed back to Fall 2020.

Photo Credit: Salt Lake City Department of Airports

Planning It out

The 700,000 square foot Main Terminal is complete with 3 floors, the bottom floor housing International Baggage Claim, Customs, commercial vehicle drop-off, employee security screening, and the main baggage handling system. 

Level 2 includes access to the pedestrian bridges to the parking structure, passenger pickup, Domestic Baggage Claim, TSA Security checkpoints for passengers along with access to the gates and concourses, and retail and dining option both pre- and post-security. 

Level 3 is passenger drop-off, Ticketing and Check-In, and Airport Administration office spaces. Granted, not everything was open on September 15. However, that is to be expected on a project this large, and in the middle of a global pandemic to boot.

Speaking of this pandemic, it has been both a blessing and a curse to the Department of Airports (not to mention the airlines, vendors, the State Economy, etc.). The curse was the drastic drop in passenger numbers that continues to this day, although the numbers are on the rise daily.

The blessing, as it was, it was now possible to fast track the construction of the East side of the concourses. Delta Airlines (DL) has now vacated the D Concourse and demolition should begin shortly, with Concourses C, F, and G not too far behind. All of the other airlines serving Salt Lake City will move to the North Concourse (B Concourse) on October 27.

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The Big Day

Coming up to the new SLC reminds one of going through somewhere like Athens, Las Vegas McCarran’s Terminal 3, or Phoenix Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4. Departures from the upper-level roadway, arrivals underneath. Upon entering Level 3 you find yourself in a very spacious and airy ticketing area.

The Eastside counters house American Airlines (AA), Alaska Airlines (AS), United Airlines (UA), and Southwest Airlines (WN), while the Westside houses Delta Air Lines (DL), KLM (KL), Aeromexico (AM), and Frontier Airlines (F9). In the center of Level 3, you can see into the main concourse and the gorgeous “Canyon” covering both walls (362 feet) from the exit from TSA screening to the concourse intersection.

It is indicative of the surrounding landscapes and is one of the most stunning pieces of artwork in any airport. All of the artwork in the airport is from regional artists focusing on representing Utah’s charm and natural beauty.

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Awaiting Concourse B

If you are arriving or departing on DL, you are fortunate. Most of its flights have been moved into the new concourse, save for a few flights still departing from Concourse C, and a few DL Connection flights operated by Skywest (OO) out of the F Concourse.

Which brings me to another point. If you are flying in or out on any other airline, you will make that long trek from the new terminal all the way down to the F and G concourses, at least until October 27, when the North Concourse B opens.

From that point on, the old airport will be walled off and demolished, and all one has to do is clear TSA screening and head down the escalators to Level 0 for the tunnel to the North Concourse.

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Open Spaces, Natural Light

A few things about this new terminal. It is massive, open, airy, and full of natural light. Even the lower level with baggage claim is open and inviting. Once you exit the secure area, immediately to the left is the Family Waiting Room, a feature that is distinctively Utah in itself.

In the old airport, families and large groups would congregate in baggage claim for their returning missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Pre 9/11 they would usually be in the much smaller gate areas, creating all sorts of headaches for the travelers and gate staff either boarding their flight or trying to deplane.

After 9/11 they would congregate in baggage claim, as stated above, and the way the terminals were designed, along with the increased screening area, it grew into a big problem on certain days if one was flying into SLC. The waiting room in the new terminal will hopefully alleviate this problem, as it is very spacious, with plenty of room for multiple families.

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A New Digital World Map

One of the most anticipated features of the waiting room is the installation of the World Map from Terminal 1. Well, let me rephrase that.

What is in the waiting room is a digital facsimile of the map, as moving the real map would have been impossible. Had they tried to lift the map, it would have crumbled in the process, due to the way it was constructed and with the materials used, so the Department of Airports came up with a solution and made a digitally faithful copy.

It looks fantastic when the light hits it just right, but one thing I kept hearing during my eight hours on opening day was how small the map was in comparison to the area it was hung in. It is what it is, and even though I griped about it, I am just glad to see it there, in any form.

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Baggage Claim, Parking Areas

Moving into the baggage claim you’ll find the carousels further apart than the old terminal, much like they are at McCarran Airport’s Terminal 3 in Las Vegas. Plenty of space to haul one’s bags off without bumping into anyone else.

From there it is a straight shot over the bridge to the massive new parking garage, with 3,600 parking stalls (a huge increase over the previous garage). The Utah Transit Authority’s light rail will also be operating out of the parking garage in the near future.

For now, passengers are being bussed from the current station at the end of the old Terminal 1 to the new terminal.

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LEED Silver Certification

The Department of Airports, contractors, and architects have come together to create a project that will have achieved LEED Silver Certification upon completion, with the ultimate goal of Gold Certification, of which only 9 airports in the United States have achieved. 

All airport vehicles are making the transition to electric power, contributing to the targeted emissions-reduction program already in progress at the airport, and keeping in alignment with the City’s own emission reductions goals. The airport expects to have all vehicles electric powered by 2024.

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First Flight Out

The first flight out of the new facilities was DL flight 2020, with service to Atlanta, Georgia. As pre-dawn departures go, usually passengers are bleary-eyed and exhausted from having been at the airport at least 2 hours beforehand, but this flight was different.

The gate area was festooned with balloons and other party accoutrements, and there was a general party vibe in the air, despite the obvious pandemic and social distancing measures. People representing the City, the Department of Airports, the major construction companies, DL, artists involved with certain airport projects, and various members of the media were out in force for a spectacular sendoff.

With pushback finally underway, Delta 2020 (operated by 27-year old Boeing 757-232 N682DA) was escorted out of the new alleyway by the Airport Police and Airport Ops under a geyser of fire truck cannons. A perfect sendoff.

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A Hidden Gem in the West

Western Airlines (WA) advertised their new Salt Lake City Hub as “The Most Convenient Hub In The West.” It most definitely was.  The concourses were not miles long, and you could connect to another flight or collect your baggage with ease. 

The new SLC has promised the same, and even though DL has grown the hub by more than double what Western ever had, this new layout is convenient and easier to navigate through than other hubs in the region. 

Salt Lake City was, and still will be, a hidden gem of a hub guaranteed to faithfully and admirably serve the region well for generations to come, as its predecessor did.

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Featured image: The New SLC Aerial 2020. Photo Credit: Salt Lake City Department of Airports