Salt Lake City's airport is already growing. Here's what's next after the current projects

People walk through the baggage claim with Delta jets visible at their gates at the Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. The Salt Lake City International Airport is ready to update its master plan for the first time since 1998.

People walk through the baggage claim with Delta jets visible at their gates at the Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. The Salt Lake City International Airport is ready to update its master plan for the first time since 1998. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Bill Wyatt wanted to show members of the Salt Lake City Council a copy of the last Salt Lake City International Airport master plan — adopted in 1998 — solely so they could see the drawing on its front cover.

"(It) is surprisingly like what we're building right now," said Wyatt, the airport's director, as he held up the large book during a council work session Tuesday.

Within minutes, he was ready to share with the council what planners now picture the future of the airport to look like, two decades after that rendering was drawn. Airport staff presented the council with details of the possible first new city airport master plan in at least 24 years.

This document is important, Wyatt contends, because it helps "paint a picture" of what the next 30 years of Utah's largest airport will look like, much like the picture on the previous master plan helped forecast the creation of the new Salt Lake City International Airport that opened two years ago.

This isn't just a document that only helps illustrate the future of the facility, but also flight growth, employment changes, technology improvements and other elements that will dictate future needs.

Brady Frederickson, the senior aviation planner for Salt Lake City Corporation, believes the last plan successfully helped transform an airport that served the Intermountain region to one that serves an international economy. This was done because planners then — as the 1998 illustration shows — figured out a better design to allow planes to move about the runway more efficiently and effectively.

"This airport now, with the expansion of flights and the expansion of international service — and if we jump to Asia, if Delta (Air Lines) gets that — we will truly be one stop from the world with this airport with all the plans," he said.

The proposed master plan presented Tuesday is the result of three years of planning that collected input from about 350 community members, 65 meetings with major stakeholders and about 20,000 hours of planning work, according to airport officials. The Federal Aviation Administration, which granted airport planners about $4 million to conduct a new master plan, will have to sign off on it along with the City Council before it's finally approved.

So what will the future of the airport look like?

The near future of the airport

Some of the future growth is already happening. The first four gates of the Concourse A-East project are scheduled to open in May 2023, while the remaining 18 gates are set to open by the end of 2023.

Airport administrations also celebrated just last week the halfway point in constructing a new central tunnel, which is slated to open by the end of 2024. That is expected to cut the walking time for many travelers who need to use Concourse B, which also has the potential to grow by another 16 gates down the road.

The tunnel will contain the keys to other projects, too. It will have the space for a future train or tram that will connect the two current concourses with a future third concourse sometime in the future. The eventual Concourse C must include other amenities, including a relocated fire station, airport maintenance base, fuel farm and a Delta Air Lines hangar because they are all either nonexistent or currently in the way of the planned third concourse location, Wyatt explained.

"That's all very daunting but we have time — as long as we know where we're going," he said.

The slightly more distant future

Concourse C's future growth is still ultimately determined by how many people use the airport, though. Its demand is triggered when the airport receives about 32.6 million annual passengers, according to an airport presentation document.

Frederickson said the Salt Lake City International Airport is currently on track to attract 25 million passengers this year, the closest to pre-COVID-19 pandemic travel records set in 2019. But the demand for a new concourse isn't too far into the horizon.

"We're really recovering quickly and we're expanding quickly," he said.

This graph shows projected Salt Lake City International Airport passenger levels every year up to 2037. The airport is currently on pace to receive 25 million passengers.
This graph shows projected Salt Lake City International Airport passenger levels every year up to 2037. The airport is currently on pace to receive 25 million passengers. (Photo: Salt Lake City International Airport)

Planners studied trends and interviewed the airline companies that use the airport to project three likely passenger activity scenarios by 2037. They found that the airport could reach 32.6 million passengers by the end of the decade.

The most bullish outlook from these sources estimates that the airport will reach 43.6 million annual passengers by 2037. The pessimistic projection states the figure is 32.8 million by 2037, while the baseline forecast is somewhere in the middle at 37.3 million passengers.

The document presented to the council shows what is needed for a fourth concourse, which is when the airport draws 47 million passengers annually. The airport could reach that level in the 2040s, based on these projections.

This map shows where future projects, including Concourse C, are planned to be located at Salt Lake City International Airport.
This map shows where future projects, including Concourse C, are planned to be located at Salt Lake City International Airport. (Photo: Salt Lake City International Airport)

Cargo airline service and corporate hangars are also expected to expand over the next 15 years, especially with the growth of the Utah Inland Port. Fredrickson said he believes he's handled more requests for corporate hangars in the past year than all of the previous 15 years combined. All of this means there will be a growing demand for a more "balanced" airfield to handle all the future planes arriving and departing, he explained.

Wyatt also acknowledged that projected gate expansions will result in 42 new jet bridges over the next seven years, nearly double the amount now. That will require more employees to handle the airport's growth.

More than just gates and runways

Parking and airport accessibility are other major future concerns. The airport's economy parking lot only reached three-fourths of capacity over the weekend, but it did reach 90% during this year's spring break and full capacity during last year's fall break.

Wyatt said there's a fear that not enough parking may lead to "suboptimal" street parking near the airport, even though there is a public transit station just outside the main terminal.

Meanwhile, he acknowledged there is some "consideration" for crews to extend the central tunnel construction beyond Concourse B early to speed up the process for when construction begins on Concourse C. This would also clear the path for a train system to open early, though it still wouldn't begin service for about another five years. The project is expected to cost about $180 million in capital with an operation and maintenance of up to $5 million annually.

"If we're going to invest in this anyway, it might be worth investing now rather than in how many more years," said Salt Lake City Councilman Darin Mano.

For now, passengers who need assistance can be shuttled around.

There are also environmental concerns that growth brings, including carbon monoxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter that can harm air quality and the climate, the document notes. Frederickson said the airport has switched out many of its diesel fleet vehicles for electric ones, while they ask airlines to do the same.

The document is ready to be adopted by the city, though it may have more adjustments before that happens. The timeline for it to be approved has yet to be established, as the council voted to continue the discussion for a future meeting. It will then be sent to the FAA for final approval.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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