Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
It’s a big source of complaints and the butt of many a joke: Salt Lake City’s new, state-of-the-art airport now might involve an epic journey just to reach your plane.
“I love the extra opportunity to train for a 5K just to get to my gate,” said Twitter user @LiminalMori when The Salt Lake Tribune asked for feedback on the airport redesign, which opened to travelers last September.
“No joke, lots of people covered in sweat & some elderly couples who looked like they may actually require medical attention after making the trek between gates,” tweeted @brittina.
In some cases, boarding at Salt Lake City International means walking more than half a mile. It can take 20-plus minutes — a worrisome pain for those with a connecting flight and a tight window to catch it.
“Unlike most Americans, I enjoy walking,” tweeted Julia Ritchey, “but it would suck if you were even a little bit delayed for a connection.”
The sheer size of the $4.1 billion airport overhaul has some travelers asking: Did airport managers and planners even consider the toll it would take on tired feet?
“Yeah, we did,” said Bill Wyatt, the airport’s executive director. “That’s why we put moving walkways in the concourse.”
Indeed, the airport has a handy diagram that clearly shows it studied the distances to various points in the airport, along with the average time it takes to reach them by standing on the moving walkways, walking on the moving walkways, or forgoing the walkways altogether and hoofing it.
In the worst-case scenario, a passenger would cover nearly two-thirds of a mile plodding from the farthest gate in the north concourse, down through a temporary tunnel, then back through the south concourse to reach the terminal.
But the airport simply must be larger — and cover more ground — due to the bigger jets that are becoming a standard part of travel these days. Large planes demand double the space a gate required in the old Salt Lake City airport, which was built back in the 1960s.
“The reality is,” Wyatt said, “people are going to have to get here earlier.”
Airport officials say passengers should now arrive at least two hours early for domestic flights and three hours before international flights depart.
“This is a big city airport now, and it’s bigger because planes like that,” Wyatt said, pointing to an Airbus behemoth loading passengers on a trip to Amsterdam, “are becoming more commonplace.”
Can the airport just get a train already?
Still, travelers point out, many “big city” airports also have trains or monorails or some kind of people mover (which is what airport transit systems are officially called) to reduce the amount of walking.
“I mean the walks are insane,” said Twitter user @CamFlowers_. “Detroit Airport was done not long before and have this tram, which they had from day one. Crazy [$]4.1 billion doesn’t get a tram.”
Concourse-to-concourse transit was always part of the longer-term plan for the Salt Lake City airport, Wyatt said. But not until the travel hub eventually adds a third concourse, likely a decade or two from now, that’s even farther away from the new terminal.
“The idea is, you want two stops and a train” connecting everything, Wyatt said.
The airport boss said he’s considering bumping up the timeline for a train or tram or automated transportation system, though, given the number of weary travelers grousing about the walk.
“It makes sense to take a look at the people mover,” Wyatt said, “whatever it turns out to be.”
Wyatt added he’s in the early steps of studying the feasibility of some sort of intra-airport transit system.
“It’s a lot more complicated than it sounds,” Wyatt said. “Obviously, I want to know what it’s going to cost. But also, how would it work? How quick would it be? What does a return trip look like? Are people going to have to wait 15 minutes?”
Airport officials will need to get the airlines on board with a people mover as well, since they’re ultimately going to have to pay for it. Wyatt expects it would cost somewhere in the range of $100 million.
“If we come up with a reasonable proposal, [airlines] will probably like it,” Wyatt said. “But I just don’t know enough yet.”
There’s good news around the corner
Either way, visitors to Salt Lake City International shouldn’t expect a slick new tram or underground train in the next year or two. But while they’re stuck with a long walk for the time being, there are some reasons for optimism.
First of all, the airport’s current design is temporary. When passengers exit the security checkpoint into the terminal plaza, they might notice there’s a big bank of blocked-off escalators. Those eventually will connect to a massive underground tunnel that will create a more direct link to the second concourse. The tunnel, currently under construction, also has room for more moving walkways, a high-speed luggage belt, and, eventually, up to two people movers.
Under phase two of the facility’s expansion, more gates will be added to the east of the south concourse, occupying the footprint of the old airport. Eventually, more gates will be added to the north concourse as well.
That will someday put the big tunnel at the center of things.
SLC Gate Phase Map by The Salt Lake Tribune on Scribd
That leads to the second piece of good news. A silver lining of the pandemic is that the sudden drop in air travel meant the airport could speed up demolition of the old airport and construction of the new one. Phase two will now be completed three years early, in 2024, and a people mover soon could follow.
Third, Wyatt and other airport officials are listening to travelers’ feedback. They’ve added two six-seater cart shuttles to the airport’s temporary tunnel that currently connects the north and south concourses. There are also more benches so people can take a break.
And for those sprinting to catch a connecting flight, Wyatt said, that’s an issue ultimately up to the airlines to solve, but they’re taking it seriously and adjusting plane schedules in response — especially Delta, since Salt Lake City is a hub for the carrier. About 70% of its passengers there are on connecting flights, Wyatt said, and never leave the airport.
“They get real-time feedback on that every single day,” he said.
While a bigger airport means more walking, it also means less time sitting on the plane while it waits to take off.
“The day we opened, the carbon footprint of the airport went way down,” he said, “because you don’t have all these planes out here running their engines, waiting to get in line. Now, planes are always on the move. They’re either in or on their way out.”
Ultimately, Wyatt said, it seems most of the jet-setters complaining about the long walk between concourses are Utahns, while out-of-state travelers largely praise the new design.
“That’s the way it breaks down,” he said. “For local folks, it’s huge, it’s terrible. People from out of town ... they’re used to seeing airports like this in other places.”