SALT LAKE CITY — The brand-new Salt Lake City International Airport lifted off before sunrise Tuesday morning with a blast.
Two firetrucks honored the first flight to soar out of the new airport — Delta Flight 2020 — with a water cannon salute at 5 a.m. The aircraft taxied to the runway through the two streams of water arching overhead as a crowd of onlookers, including dignitaries like Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, watched from behind Concourse A’s glass windows, clapping and cheering.
The massive, $4.1 billion replacement of the old Salt Lake City International Airport, which is slated to be demolished and built over starting by the end of the year, opened its doors to travelers for the first time Tuesday. Passengers walked into an airport they’ve never seen before, with a new massive central terminal and its first concourse, Concourse A.
Monday marked the last day for travelers passing through the old airport — a facility that has lived long past its useful life. It was built for 10 million passengers when last year it served more than 26 million.
The airport also opened a new parking garage, with 3,600 stalls — double the public parking capacity of the old garage — that sits right next to the central terminal. The new garage features a camera-based sensor system that uses lights to indicate where open spots are located. Ahead of the grand opening, airport officials restriped the roadways to direct passengers to the new structure, which led vehicles straight to the new drop-off and pickup zones with ease.
The inaugural flight — with a name signifying a chaotic and uncertain year for the aviation industry and yet a new era for Salt Lake City International Airport — took off toward Atlanta, the headquarters for Delta, which calls Salt Lake City home to its fourth-largest hub airport.
Mendenhall on Tuesday proclaimed that hub “the most beautiful airport in the U.S. and the world.”
“This is a tremendous day for Salt Lake City and the entire region,” the mayor said after a ribbon-cutting ceremony honoring the official grand opening of the new airport.
It was all pomp and circumstance as city, airport and Delta officials celebrated the grand opening with Delta cookies, a cake replica of the new terminal paired with a frosting airplane, and balloon suitcases.
It was the last thing Julie Erwin, of South Jordan, expected when she and her husband got up before the crack of dawn at 3:50 a.m. to head to the airport for their vacation in Florida.
Still bleary-eyed while she sat at gate A21, waiting to board Delta Flight 2020 to Atlanta where they had a layover, Erwin said she had no idea it was opening day for Salt Lake’s new airport. She also had no idea her flight would be the inaugural flight — and she certainly didn’t expect the water cannon salute.
“We were surprised,” she said.
Erwin said a family member drove them to the airport to drop them off, expecting the usual route. But when they arrived, the striping on the one-way road led them away from the old airport and onto a new roadway right up to the new. She said the drop-off zone was easy to navigate, and they exited their car right in front of the new terminal.
When they walked in, Erwin said the first thing that caught her eye was the art installation near the escalators, “The Falls,” an 80-foot sculpture of light-refracting glass panes meant to represent a waterfall in a canyon. And up the escalators, as she looked out across a balcony, Ewrin said she was awed by “The Canyon,” the wavy, football-field-sized centerpiece art made of more than 500 wavy, fabric-covered, aluminum fins that sweep across the upper walls of the central terminal and illuminate with a programmable lighting system, meant to represent southern Utah’s slot canyons. Both art installations are by California-based artist Gordon Huether.
“It’s beautiful. I was surprised by how beautiful it is,” Erwin said.
Erwin appreciated the modern feel of the new terminal and Concourse A, something she predicted will keep Salt Lake City in the minds of visitors when they pass through.
“It’s like Salt Lake has arrived,” she said. “When people come, they don’t think, ‘Oh my goodness, this is such a small and old airport.’ This is up-to-date and modern and it’s just really nice.”
Tuesday’s opening day was 25 years in the making, said Bill Wyatt, executive director of Salt Lake City International Airport, and one that marks a new future for Salt Lake City and the state as a whole. Officials laud the new, state-of-the-art airport as what will be one of the biggest economic drivers in the state for decades to come. They project it will net over $5.5 billion in future economic growth.
“It’s really extraordinary,” Wyatt said. “This project is going to have enormously positive impacts on this community for the balance of a century. That’s a really amazing thing to think about. It’s the first 21st century hub airport (replacement in the U.S.), and it may be the last, because it’s very difficult to do. And it’s right here in Salt Lake.”
State and national airport officials say the new airport positions Salt Lake City to not only weather the COVID-19 storm, but to thrive long afterward, poised to accommodate air travel when it comes back with a vengeance — which they’re confident it will as the dust settles from the pandemic.
J.T. Martin, a member of the airport advisory board who was a Salt Lake city councilman in the early days of the airport redevelopment endeavor, bought a ticket on Delta Flight 2020.
“I just couldn’t miss this opportunity,” Martin said. To see the finished project in all its grandeur has been surreal, he added.
“This is going to be a huge economy boost for the city, for the state, for the university, for our businesses,” Martin said.
The fact that the airport’s opening, after so many years of planning, aligned with COVID-19 has been “unfortunate,” Martin said, but the airport entered into the investment with low debt and plenty of cash on hand, so as a board member he feels confident in the airport’s financial position.
“We have a lot of money that we can sit through this as needed. I’m not worried for two years ... by then, it will all be sorted out. And if it isn’t, it doesn’t matter,” Martin said, laughing. “If we’re still in this mess in two years, all of the rules are going to change. But we’re prepared. Two years is a long time, and flying is (coming back).”
Tuesday’s opening was a big day for Delta, which will occupy all 25 gates in Concourse A, including the six international gates. In six weeks, when Concourse B opens on Oct. 27, Concourse B will open with 20 gates for Alaska, American, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest and United airlines.
Eric Phillips, Delta’s senior vice president of airport customer service, called the new airport’s opening a “bright light — a beacon, almost” — in a year that has brought unprecedented challenges to the industry.
While airlines have received billions in federal assistance to endure the pandemic, 19,000 Delta employees took early retirement packages in July to help the company weather the pandemic.
“With everything bad that’s happening right now ... it’s outstanding,” Phillips said, calling Salt Lake City now a “destination airport” and an appealing place for travelers looking for a comfortable option for layovers.
Delta chose Salt Lake City for now its largest Sky Club yet — 28,000 square feet, featuring two bars, breakfast buffets, an outdoor balcony, a fireplace and showers for members.
“It’s just gorgeous,” Phillips said. “I hope (passengers) have an incredible experience and have some optimism and excitement about travel.”
The airport’s new linear design — with one central terminal and two concourses parallel to each other — is considered the “gold standard” for hub airports, and is designed to be more efficient than the wheel-and-spoke layout. The linear design is meant to eliminate aircraft bottlenecking and idling, and also allows for easier expansion at the east ends of the concourses.
To Lorrie Schmanski, of South Weber, the new airport has been a bright spot in an otherwise panic-stricken and gloomy year.
“It’s nice to see something happy and exciting,” she said as she waited at gate A21 to board Delta Flight 2020. “I feel like every time you turn on the news or open a newspaper, it’s been so depressing, sad, full of drama and chaos and stress and tension. It’s nice to see something to celebrate.”
Schmanski, who was headed to Atlanta for a business trip, said she navigated the new airport with ease, even though she also did not expect to go to a brand-new building. She also was impressed by the futuristic technology at the large new, 16-lane security screening area, which provides each passenger a partitioned area where they pick up a bin from a slot underneath. The conveyor belt system automatically returns bins, so travelers don’t have to stack their own bins anymore.
Schmanski said it’s a strange time, amid COVID-19, to open a new airport, but she credited airport officials and airlines with making passengers “feel safe,” appreciating the hand sanitizer stations at practically every corner.
“I’m impressed they actually pulled it off during COVID,” she said. “Because of all the setbacks with everything in the world right now, the fact that they’ve done it during a pandemic and opened it and made it look like this is impressive.”