SALT LAKE CITY — State and city leaders unveiled America’s newest airport Thursday.
The massive, multibillion-dollar undertaking to rebuild Salt Lake City International Airport, which has been under construction for the past six years, is about to cross its first finish line when its first buildings open to travelers Sept. 15.
That means that day Utahns — and travelers from across the world — will walk into an airport they’ve never seen before. Utah officials previewed its opening with an unveiling ceremony to show off its grandeur and give the public its first look inside the finished product with tours for members of the media.
“This moment has been 25 years in the making,” Bill Wyatt, executive director of Salt Lake City International Airport, said as he kicked off the unveiling ceremony, telling of how a 1996 city master plan that first envisioned the new airport looks “remarkably” like the one opening in 18 days.
The unveiling of the “New SLC” comes after more than two decades of planning, but at a strange and trepidatious time for air travel as COVID-19 continues to grip the world. Yet airport officials are hopeful the air industry will weather the current challenges brought on by the pandemic, and they’re hopeful the new Salt Lake airport will rise to meet those challenges as well as future growth.
Opening amid a pandemic
In February, before COVID-19 landed in Utah, Salt Lake City International Airport saw a record high 30,000 passengers each weekend. Just one month later, when COVID-19 hit, that tally spiraled to barely 1,500, according to airport officials.
Though air travel is beginning to pick back up, the pandemic has been the “single biggest financial hit to the commercial aviation industry in history,” Wyatt said, and it brought doubts of whether the new airport would finish on time.
“A few months ago, when the depth of the economic challenges associated with COVID-19 became apparent, I’ll admit to feelings of concern about the future of this project,” Wyatt said. But the commitment from Delta, which calls Salt Lake City home to its fourth-largest hub, and the other airlines was clear.
“After consulting with Delta, the answer from Atlanta was, ‘Put your foot on the gas pedal,” Wyatt said. “With all the support of all of our carriers ... we did just that.”
The $4.1 billion rebuild was funded with airport user fees and bonds — not taxpayer dollars — and marks the first major hub airport replacement built in the 21st century. It’s not a remodel or expansion, but an entirely new airport. It comes with a parking garage with double the existing capacity, a massive terminal and two concourses connected by an underground tunnel meant to make air travel easier and more efficient for people and planes.
When the second phase of the project is completed in 2024 — Concourse A’s east wing — it will be built right over top of where the current airport now stands. Because of the pandemic and lower travel demand, Wyatt said airport officials will be able to move the airport’s entire operations into the new building and move up the demolition, which is projected to shorten construction by two years and save $300 million.
At Thursday’s ceremony, the new airport was lauded as a “cathedral to transportation” and another leap toward solidifying Utah as the “crossroads of the world.” It was the largest public works project in the history of Utah.
Dignitaries that attended and spoke at the opening ceremony (which required face coverings and social distancing) included Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Lt. Gov Spencer Cox in place of Gov. Gary Herbert, who couldn’t attend because he was traveling, and Delta Vice President Scott Santoro.
Cox, who read a speech by Herbert, said the new airport represents “a leap of faith,” and one that “promises of a brighter future.”
“I firmly believe that this rebuild will help the Salt Lake City International Airport secure its position as a global aviation hub and reputation as one of the country’s greatest airports,” Cox said.
All the dignitaries placed items in a time capsule to be opened in 100 years. Wyatt read a letter to future airport employees that called 2020 “one giant curveball.”
“But Salt Lake City Department of Airport employees came together and got the job done,” Wyatt read from the letter. “We pulled off what seemed to be the impossible amidst the wild times we’re facing. This new airport became a beacon of hope for the return to normalcy.”
Mendenhall put in the time capsule a face mask, a Black Lives Matter poster and some acorns from the trees from Salt Lake City’s Washington Square that she said represented her hope for the future, despite the chaos so far experienced in 2020.
“Salt Lake City is strong,” Mendenhall said, her voice straining with emotion. “We are an incredibly strong city. We are resilient. We are innovative. We love to welcome the world and all of its incredible diversity. And now we will through an international airport that is deserving of this capital city in this amazing state.”
Salt Lake City Council Chairman Chris Wharton said even though “the world right now is daunting” and it seems people are more isolated and “siloed” than ever, he called the new airport “a portal to the world.”
The new design
Construction is in its final stages, with some storefronts still to be filled and the moving walkways covered in plastic, but Wyatt said the Sept. 15 opening is a sure thing.
“There may be a few guys running around with lightbulbs and screwdrivers,” he said. “But we’re going to be open on the 15th.”
The rebuild replaces facilities that were constructed more than 50 years ago and designed to handle half as many travelers it served last year: more than 26 million.
To plan for and design the rebuild, the Salt Lake City Department of Airports spent years to create an airport that will be more efficient, be able to handle future growth with ease, and give passengers facilities that will be easier and quicker to navigate. The linear design — with one central terminal and the two concourses parallel to each other — is considered the “gold standard” for hub airports, from which different sized aircraft come and go throughout the day. The linear design also allows for easier future expansion at the ends of the concourses.
Concourse A, which will eventually house Delta Airlines’ gates exclusively, is connected to the terminal building with a grand area called the Plaza, with 50-foot, floor-to-ceiling windows that frame the Wasatch Mountains.
Concourse B, which is slated to open Oct. 27, connects to Concourse A with a tunnel beneath the taxiway, which was built more than 15 years ago in anticipation of the rebuild.
While the price tag soared as the size and scope of the project also grew, along with explosive construction costs, airport officials say its economic impact is forecasted to outpace its cost, at $5.5 billion.
The new airport took over 8.3 million labor hours to build, according to airport officials, and used more than 3,200 steel piles driven into the ground and over 7,600 stone columns to stabilize the ground.
The new facility features:
- More than 4 million square feet of space.
- An all-electric baggage system that contains over 7 miles of conveyor belts, built to accommodate skis, snowboards, bicycles and other items Utah-bound travelers often bring.
- 24 restrooms all 300 feet apart so passengers will never be more than 150 feet away.
- 31 escalators.
- 32 moving walkways.
- 58 restaurants and shops, including local favorites like Market Street Grill and Cafe Rio.
- 3,600 public parking stalls, twice the amount of the existing garage.
- 78 gates
- Six dual-use international gates, all with jet bridges.
The current airport’s gate count is 71 gates and three international gates. Only 55 of the current gates have jet bridges.
The new airport also features a 28,000-square-foot Delta Sky Club and an outdoor Sky Deck.
Another new feature was designed with Utahns in mind: the Greeting Room. The spacious area, which features a fireplace, couches and a high-resolution replica of the world map from the old airport, was created as a space for large family greeting parties that are a common in Utah, especially for families welcoming home loved ones returning from missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A ‘cathedral to transportation’
Throughout the new airport are countless art installations, including the centerpiece “The Canyon” — a football field-sized installation by California-based artist Gordon Huether made of more than 500 wavy, fabric-covered, aluminum-framed fins that sweep across the upper walls of the central terminal and illuminate with a programmable lighting system.
“The Canyon” and other art aim to represent the wind- and water-carved canyons of Utah, Huether said. There’s also “The Falls,” a 5,000-pound, 80-foot sculpture of light-refracting glass panes meant to represent a waterfall in a canyon.
Huether said his goal was to create a “sense of place” through a fully immersive art installation program throughout the airport — and one that wasn’t just for the “art snobs.”
“You don’t have to know diddly about art to be moved, awed and inspired when you walk through this airport,” he said. “You don’t have to know diddly about art to know that you are here in Utah, and all will be inspired to be in this cathedral to transportation.”
Huether said his mission has always been to inspire “the spirit of humanity.”
“This idea of inspiring the spirit of humanity has taken on an even more important role in these historic times of economic meltdown, political divide, a pandemic, social upheaval,” he said. “There’s a lot of stress, there’s a lot of anxiety, there’s a lot of fear ... If there was ever a time that art mattered, if there was ever a time that art should transport you to a higher place, if there was ever a time where art could unite us in inspiration ... now would be that time.”
Nature-inspired art is featured throughout the entire airport and was “given as much priority as were functionality,” airport officials wrote in a magazine boasting of the new facility.
“Our intent was to distinguish Salt Lake from other airports around the world,” said Maureen Riley, who was executive director of the airport until 2017, during which time she initiated the redevelopment plan. “We wanted people to know exactly where they were when they deplaned into the terminal and remember the art.”