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SALT LAKE CITY — Spirit Airlines executives ran into a problem when they first approached Salt Lake City International Airport officials a long time ago with the idea of expanding their low-cost service to Utah.
The airport didn't have any space for them.
Utah's record growth made it a prime candidate for new airlines, but the old airport was too small to bring in any new business.
"The old airport was just very, very constrained — very full in every sense of the word," said Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Salt Lake City Department of Airports. "We simply didn't have the room for another carrier."
Spirit, or any other airline for that matter, would have to wait for a new terminal to open, which wouldn't happen until September 2020.
The wait is now over.
Standing under a yellow, black and white balloon arch — the colors of Spirit Airlines — inside the airport's busy terminal, executives for both Spirit Airlines and the Salt Lake City International Airport ceremoniously cut a cake Tuesday to celebrate the beginning of a new partnership.
Spirit Airlines is set to begin service to and from Salt Lake City International Airport beginning May 26, just ahead of Memorial Day weekend. Initial service will consist of two daily flights to Las Vegas, and daily flights to Los Angeles and Orlando, making it the first domestic airline to open operations in Salt Lake City since Alaska Airlines in 2014.
"This is a very exciting day," Wyatt said.
Salt Lake City will become one of the airline's 53 destinations in the continental United States and 86th globally. The company plans to host a job fair for pilots on Feb. 8 and hire about 40 people to carry out initial operations, according to John Kirby, vice president of network planning for Spirit Airlines.
The Florida-based Spirit Airlines was founded in 1983 and has slowly grown ever since. It currently owns about 170 aircraft but is expected to expand to 350 planes over the next five years, according to Kirby. The airline prides itself on being a low-cost fare option for fliers. Customers then choose if they want to pay for additional features, like baggage, seat assignments and refreshments.
Its business model has made it a frequent punchline for late-night television comedians and people on social media. However, Wyatt believes the model might work well, especially for Utah families looking to cut travel costs.
"I think this is going to be a very popular service," he said. "It's an ultra-low-cost carrier, so the fares will be very competitive. I think that's something that people in this region are really going to appreciate."
Kirby adds the company also prefers nonstop service flights. According to travel website the Points Guy, Spirit ranked fifth among U.S. airlines in completion factor last year, meaning it also was one of the leaders in flights not being canceled.
The three initial routes selected to and from Utah highlight overlapping travel patterns for the airline and airport. Kirby said the three destinations selected for the initial Salt Lake service are among the top four destinations it serves. Meanwhile, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Orlando were also in the top 10 destinations for Salt Lake City travelers in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting flying.
Kirby said that the airline will assess data before expanding its service in Salt Lake City. There's no concrete timeline for when the expansion would begin.
"We always have the next step but it always comes down to performance," he told KSL.com. "If we do well, we'll add more service without a doubt."
He added he's personally excited about the new service because he and his daughter try to hike in at least one national park every year. With the airline's new service to Utah, he said he will "definitely" explore one of Utah's five national parks this summer to keep that tradition going.
It's not the only new service that will begin this year. European airline, Eurowings, will also begin nonstop service to Frankfurt, Germany, in May.
Both new options come at an important time for airport officials. COVID-19 dismantled the travel industry in 2020 but travel rebounded in 2021 to the point that Wyatt said operations are now close to normal, well ahead of schedule. He believes a mixture of people looking to travel and Utah's outdoors — something that offers the less likelihood of contracting COVID-19 — made it a desired destination last year.
Those trends are expected to continue into this year.
"We're essentially back to where we were in 2019," he said. "We're one of the busiest airports in the country. ... And we're anticipating a very busy spring and summer. We're just going to see record passenger volumes here."
Aside from Spirit and Eurowings, Wyatt said there aren't any other airlines the airport has waiting in the wings. He expects that will change in the future, especially as the airport grows.
It means airlines interested in bringing service to Utah will no longer have to worry about being told there's no space for business.