MIAMI – The new US$4.1b Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC), though bigger, had several technical issues handling the unexpected massive crowds of the Christmas travel season due to the ongoing COVID-19 virus.

“There were some kinks, I’ll be the first to say,” Bill Wyatt, airport executive director, told the city Airport Advisory Board on Wednesday.

Passengers experienced problems with receiving wheelchair assistance and the baggage system sometimes didn’t work. Airport roads were also congested with confused drivers. More than anything, people complained about how much longer the walk is to the gates.

Photo- Salt Lake City International Airport

Getting Used to a New Airport

“The reality is it’s a big, beautiful airport — emphasis on big and beautiful — and people are going to take some time getting used to this because it’s very different,” Wyatt said.

The old airport that was opened in 1981 for terminal one and 1984 for terminal 2 was built generally for smaller aircraft, so gates were spaced more closely and the airport was compact and small. Now aircraft are bigger and require more room between gates as Wyatt noted.

Concourses A and B are separated by a 900-foot (274 meters) tunnel with the farthest point taking around 21 minutes from check-in to gate with moving walkways cover about 70% of that distance, but it is still a hike.

Airport layout Photo: Salt Lake City International Airport

Cart Shuttles Needed

Wyatt said he often could go from the parking lot to a gate in eight minutes. “That just isn’t the case at a big-boy, world class airport like we have now,” he said. “It functions differently than the old airport in many, many ways.”

The under-construction central tunnel is being built large enough to someday allow a planned “plane train” for when a third concourse is built 15-20 years from now. The airport authority is considering offering golf-cart-like shuttles in the current tunnel to help speed up the travel time.

“Not enough room exists in gate concourses for such shuttles” Wyat said. He added that “the airport once offered carts but stopped them because of a high number of lawsuits from people who were hit in crowded halls.” Also, he said airlines did not want them in the new airport and did not want to help fund wider concourses needed to allow them.

Photo- Ryan Scottini/ Airways

Not Enough Staff

“The contractor that offers wheelchair service failed to hire enough people to handle unexpectedly large crowds when about 22,000 local passengers showed up at the airport on the Sunday after Christmas instead of the 7,000 or 8,000 people who had been arriving during the pandemic.”

“The spike in passenger volume was so sharp and so sudden that the company that provides that service for the airlines simply wasn’t staffed up to handle that,” Wyatt said. “That’s a problem that time is going to resolve because, from this point forward, the increase in passenger volume is going to be sufficiently gradual so that they’ll be able to staff accordingly.”

Wyatt said “the airport also had some failures with baggage handling with the bigger crowds,” but blames that more on people not used to the higher volume than on the new machinery itself. “The machinery has performed very effectively. It’s still many of the service providers, ticket agents, and others getting used to how this works,” he said. Wyatt said the airport is working to resolve problems it finds and is preparing for expected bigger crowds.

Photo- Reuters

Fast Facts on SLC

Ten airlines and their affiliates serve SLC with operations from all the major US airlines and international airlines AeroMexico (AM), KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KL). Delta Air Lines (DL) operates about 70 percent of total traffic out of SLC as DLs 4th largest hub (as of 2019).

SLC served over 25 million passengers in 2018 and ranks as 23rd busiest airport in North America and 85th busiest airport in the world in terms of passenger numbers with a strong on-time performance record. There were just over 337,000 operations in 2018 including commercial air traffic, cargo, general aviation, and military activity.

There are approximately 370 scheduled, commercial departures from SLC each day, serving close to 98 cities with non-stop flights. The airport complex is made up of one terminal with 2 concourses, 47 jetbridge gates and 20 hardstand gates for regional aircraft. Six gates in terminal 1 have two jetbridges used for international flights.

Twenty-two additional gates will be added to concourse A and 11 to concourse B to be opened by 2024. However, due to the COVID pandemic, the airport hopes to shave two years off the project. SLC has four runways: three air carrier runways (34L/16R, 34R/16L, 35/17), and one general aviation runway (32/14).

SLC is a department of Salt Lake City Corporation; however, it is an enterprise fund and airport revenue is generated from user fees. No local taxpayer dollars contribute to the operation of the airport.

Featured image: The Canyon purple and green. Photo: SLC