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SALT LAKE CITY — Paper is the present that marks a one-year anniversary, so Salt Lake City International Airport leadership thought of the perfect gift to commemorate the first year of the year that the new airport has been operational.
Airport officials planned to hand out celebratory paper airplanes to airport staff in honor of Wednesday's anniversary.
But while the airport has come online more in the past year as people return to the skies — nearly tripling the number of average passengers walking through its concourses daily since its first week — there's plenty of evidence that the new airport isn't complete.
"We're not done yet," said airport director Bill Wyatt, speaking from a third-story mezzanine as airline passengers shuffled to and from the airport's Concourse A below.
Some crews are putting the finishing touches on a new TRAX station outside of the main terminal, while others are working on a concourse extension that will eventually make access to Concourse B easier — something that airport director Bill Wyatt jokes he's probably heard the most feedback about.
So when will the construction of the airport be complete? Well, that's more of a rhetorical question.
"The answer at airports is you're really never done," Wyatt said. "As soon as you're complete, the demand drives additional activity."
Travel — and construction — growth one year later
Travel to and from the Salt Lake City International Airport is slowly getting back to normal. Wyatt estimates that travel is at about 90% to 95% of where it was before COVID-19 struck the travel industry. There were only about 7,000 people coming through the airport daily when the new airport went online on Sept. 15, 2020, due to COVID-19 and its travel impacts. It's now back to about 20,000 people daily, even hitting 29,000 people at one point this year, according to airport officials.
We've had, really, the better part of a year to really work out some of the kinks and bogs that are inevitable with a new facility. I think I can safely say now that we've really got a feel for the place. It's working much better.
–Bill Wyatt, director of Salt Lake City International Airport
That travel lag may have been a blessing. Prior to COVID-19, airport staff hoped for a big first day so they could see what areas needed to be addressed. But it ultimately allowed airport employees to ease into their new digs and work out any issues without it really impacting any travelers.
"We've had, really, the better part of a year to really work out some of the kinks and bogs that are inevitable with a new facility," Wyatt said. "I think I can safely say now that we've really got a feel for the place. It's working much better."
As travelers return to flying, staff members have heard feedback that has helped them improve the airport. One of the top complaints is the distance between the A and B concourses. Wyatt said that it's ironic because the distance between the two concourses isn't as long as walks in the old airport. He suspects the difference in designs, a straight line down a tunnel versus the old twists and turns of the old airport, creates a psychological belief for travelers that the distance is much longer than in the past.
Nevertheless, the next phase currently underway will help with that distance. Crews are currently working on Concourse A-East, which will connect the current A and B concourses above ground. The airport plans to hold a "topping out" ceremony, where the last beam of the building is put in place, next month. The first gates of the facility are scheduled to open in May 2023 while the entire construction project will wrap up in 2024.
Utah Transit Authority is also close to finishing a new TRAX station right outside of the airport. The agency reports that its current bus bridge from a temporary stop near the airport to the stop outside of the main terminal will continue through Oct. 3. It will be followed by a bus bridge between the airport and UTA's 1940 West Station from Oct. 4 through Oct. 21 before the new station opens.
Long-term future and a return to normal
The airport's long-term plan calls for another concourse. The Concourse C plan also includes a light rail train within the central tunnel that will help connect the three concourses without as much walking; however, its future remains hazy at the moment, according to Wyatt.
There's no concrete date for when Concourse C construction begins. Rather, that work will begin once the airport reaches somewhere around 34 million annual passengers. To put that into context, Wyatt said the airport received about 25 million passengers annually just before the pandemic.
It's still unclear when the airport will reach 25 million annual passengers again, much less hit that 34 million target. Airport officials believed they might return to normal volumes this year before the delta variant emerged and disrupted travel again — albeit to a lesser extent than 2020, Wyatt explained. He believes the airport will have a better understanding of travel recovery after the upcoming ski season, and if business travel or international travel returns to pre-COVID-19 levels.
"I am now thinking that the first kind of normal year is going to be 2023," he said. "2022, I think, will be pretty good but most of what we think as normal is probably 2023."
That's great timing because it's right as Concourse A-East is expected to slowly open.
Airport honored for going green
Meanwhile, Salt Lake City leaders and airport staff also celebrated the airport's one-year anniversary by accepting an award for its green standards. The U.S. Green Building Council awarded it LEED Gold Certified for its efficiency, water conservation and emission reductions efforts.
"This isn't a surprise because our teams have been working intentionally for about a decade on making sure we be standing here today celebrating this," said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. "Achieving this, though, isn't a small feat. This facility is the largest LEED Gold Certified airport terminal in the Western United States, as measured by square footage."
Per airport officials, the airport's "linear" concourse configuration cuts about 15,000 metric tons of greenhouse gasses annually, which is about the same as removing 3,000 cars from roads every year. Another 4,000 metric tons of greenhouse gasses are removed annually as a result of airlines transitioning from diesel to electric ground support equipment.
There are also 90 electric vehicle charging stations available for employees and passengers. Airport crews also installed a new baggage handling system that staff members can start and stop whenever instead of running it during all hours of the day.
"We know that reducing our carbon emissions is so critical not only for our local community but for our world over, and as much mitigation and impact reduction we can do, we will," Mendenhall added.
Officials added that low-flow and sensor-based restroom features have helped the average passenger reduce water consumption by over a full gallon to about 2.5 gallons. In addition, the mayor said about 95% of the old airport materials were used in one way or another toward the new airport instead of going to landfills or incinerators.
Lisa Stanley, the director of technical solutions for the U.S. Green Building Council, said its green standards for certification have been adopted by all 50 U.S. states and over 180 countries across the globe. She then turned to Mendenhall and airport employees before presenting the airport with a plaque honoring their work.
"Standing in the middle of this gorgeous new construction, it's immediately clear just how successful your combined efforts were in bringing this project from conception to construction to LEED Certification," she said. "I'm impressed not only by the beauty of the project but by your ability to complete both of these large-scale projects amid circumstances that could haven't been foreseen a decade ago."