Passengers are down 75% at Salt Lake City airport, creating uncertainty

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) A masked traveler stands in line with his luggage before getting to the ticket counter at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Sunday, March 15, 2020 in Salt Lake City.

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On a normal weekday, 22,000 to 24,000 local passengers arrive or depart at Salt Lake City International Airport. On Monday, only 5,600 were expected.

“That’s roughly a 75% decrease,” airport director Bill Wyatt said.

Such plummeting numbers amid the coronavirus outbreak are creating uncertainty for workers and operations, plus an unclear future for ongoing construction of the new $4.1 billion replacement airport adjacent to current facilities. That is funded mostly by fees from the now-troubled airlines.

For now, Wyatt foresees no layoffs, and says the first phase of the expansion should still finish and open on time on Sept. 15. After that, the future is a bit murky.

“Things are still fluid,” he said in an interview on Monday.

Wyatt notes that the airport had planned to hire more staff as it essentially planned to keep operating its current facilities while readying the new replacement expansion to open.

“But we have put a hold on all new hires,” he said. “We have not laid off anyone. And to be honest, I don’t anticipate that at this point, although there is a lot of water yet to pass under the bridge.”

Delta Air Lines — which operates 73% of the departures from the airport — has announced it is cutting 70% of its flights, and Wyatt said most other airlines are taking similar steps.

“But you don’t do that immediately,” Wyatt said. “They are still operating not a normal flight schedule, but a robust one.” Still, flights are only 20% to 30% full, compared to a normal 88% to 92%.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Department of Airports Executive Director Bill Wyatt, talks about construction of the new Salt Lake International Airport on July 31, 2018.

“Once they sort of get a feel for where the bottom is to all of this, they will adjust their network accordingly and they really are doing it as we speak,” Wyatt said.

As airlines try to conserve cash and cut what they don’t need, Wyatt said they have not asked to jam the brakes on the new airport that they are helping to fund. They and the airport are committed to start paying on bonds used to obtain money for the expansion anyway soon, so Wyatt said he does not believe that much would be gained by delaying at this point.

“We’re still proceeding and still hope to be able to open phase 1 by the 15th of September,” Wyatt said. “The real question is what happens with phase 2, and it’s a little early for me to tell you about that right now.”

Phase 1 includes a new terminal, a new concourse of gates, a new parking garage and other facilities — and would still require use of some current gates to continue.

Phase 2 is actually a series of small phases and includes a second concourse (now scheduled also to open in October), and also involves demolition of the current parking garage, terminals and gates at different times.

What may happen with demolition is tough to say.

“That’s a hard to predict at this point,” Wyatt said. “We had a very attractive bid to conduct that work. It’s going to happen anyway. So really over the next 30 to 45 days we’ll be doing a lot of analysis and thinking and talking with the carriers about where things head.”

Wyatt said he is hoping that bailout legislation before Congress will pass and include enough help for airports “to buy us enough time to be thoughtful about where we go in the future of the project.” He adds that the airport is checking in daily with Delta and the other airlines about the project and its future.

“I think that as we begin to see the carriers settle into their new normal in terms of their network, we’ll get a better picture for where we go after opening day — assuming we get there,” Wyatt said.

He also adds that nearly a full complement of construction workers are laboring on the new expansion, despite the virus threat — and that construction is on schedule.

It’s not the first time that Wyatt has faced challenging times. He was hired as the director of the airport in Portland, Ore., just three days before the 9/11 attacks. He went through the Great Recession and the SARS and H1D1 epidemics.

“And now this. So it’s not my first rodeo,” Wyatt said. “And you know what? I have no idea where this is going — but it feels somewhat familiar.”

He said he feels the airport is equipped to make the decisions needed in the unsure times.

“There are obviously big, big forces that are way beyond our control,” he said. “We’re doing the very best we can to adapt as we confront those forces. I’m confident we’ll be able to do that.”