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Salt Lake City’s new $4 billion airport officially opened its doors to passengers in September, right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. So it didn’t see much traffic at first.
Now, with COVID-19 cases dropping in the U.S. and pandemic restrictions easing, travelers are antsy to fly again.
“This summer, I think, is going to be pandemonium,” said Bill Wyatt, the airport’s executive director.
With more Utahns taking to the skies and passing through the revamped Salt Lake City International Airport, The Salt Lake Tribune asked for feedback on the experience.
Here, we do our best to address all the input:
Let’s start with the positives
Many travelers who have toured or traveled through the new airport had glowing reviews. Indeed, there are a lot of reasons to like it. The airport is still insanely close to downtown Salt Lake City — about a 15-minute drive — and less than an hour away from world-class skiing. There’s a large new greeting area for families to wait for returning missionaries and other travelers. It has state-of-the-art baggage handling and security technology. There are cool sculptures and art.
“I love it,” tweeted @aspenkhopkins, “... the ceilings are incredibly high (so nice), and the architectural benches are quirky and visually tied to [Great Salt Lake] & snow.”
Even the restrooms have their own unique murals. And the restrooms themselves are pretty nice, too!
“The bathroom stalls are big enough to bring in luggage!!!” wrote twitter user @dayna_stern.
Wyatt said Salt Lake City was overdue for a new, modern airport.
“The old airport was old in every possible sense of the word,” he said. “It was falling apart, and it was dangerous.”
Demand for travel in and out of Salt Lake City is also on the rise, with boardings growing 10% to 12% each year, Wyatt said.
“This is how airports would build if they could,” he said. “Very few have the chance.”
Lots of people who passed through the new airport praised its focus on Utah restaurants and shops (The Tribune even has a store in Concourse B).
“I’ve had some amazing food at the Uinta brewing restaurant,” tweeted @mattheratjacob.
“We did want to see a good representation of locally identifiable brands in the airport,” Wyatt said. “That is something we heard a lot.”
Sure, the Utah restaurants are great. But can the airport just get a McDonald’s already?
Despite praise for the airport’s focus on Utah-based eateries, a lot of travelers’ complaints involve limited food options. There can be long lines to get coffee or to get just about anything.
Some passengers just want to know when they can get a cheap basic burger from a fast-food chain.
“The Delta terminal has only 4 food options,” tweeted @Lazormamma, “and right now they all have long wait[s].”
(@Lazormamma also asked for lactation rooms for mothers, because babies need to eat, too. The airport does have those in the restrooms.)
The long waits and lack of options are due, in part, to a labor shortage that’s affecting restaurants throughout the state. Some restaurants planned for the airport simply can’t open, or have opened with limited hours.
Asked when the airport will get a McDonald’s, Wyatt laughed out loud. Apparently it’s a question he gets a lot.
The boss said the airport will solicit bids starting in August for the next phase of restaurants and vendors, which will probably include more of the chains travelers are used to seeing.
“In the next round, we are likely to do a more conventional hamburger package,” Wyatt said. “That was always the plan.”
People really don’t like the long walk
This is, by far, travelers’ biggest complaint. The Tribune wrote a detailed story about the long walk to reach the B gates earlier this month, but here’s the gist: The airport is bigger because airplanes are getting bigger. It’s also only partly finished — construction crews are excavating a large tunnel that will provide a more direct route between concourses.
This map helps makes sense of what things eventually will look like:
The “mid-concourse tunnel” is what passengers currently use to reach the B gates. Everything in blue hasn’t been built yet or is under construction.
Some day, the big central tunnel will also have a train or tram — but not for several years.
Until then, airport crews are running mini six-seater shuttles through the temporary tunnel connecting concourses. And there are moving walkways and escalators throughout.
And if you’re also annoyed about having to hoof it from the airport terminal to the TRAX station, Wyatt said the Utah Transit Authority is building a new station next door, which should open sometime around October.
“They had to wait until we opened,” Wyatt said, “because they had to cross what was the old roadway.”
Why is it so hot?
It’s true. The Salt Lake City airport can feel a bit sweltering, especially if there’s a summer heat wave and you’re running between concourses to catch a flight.
“It would be thrilling,” tweeted @aMarieTucker, “if they could get the ac working.”
Wyatt said crews are still fine-tuning the heating and cooling system.
“The air conditioning system, like everything in this building, is not only brand new but it’s quite different than the old system,” Wyatt said.
But even when workers get the hang of the new system, don’t expect temperatures to be frosty in the summer.
“City ordinance requires we not air condition below 75 degrees and we not heat above 69 degrees, for environmental reasons,” Wyatt said. “75 degrees — that’s warm.”
Why is there only one entrance and security checkpoint?
The old airport had three terminals; the new one has one. That single terminal has a single entrance, a single drop-off area, a single security check and a single baggage claim area. It also has a lot of passengers complaining about pinch points.
“PLEASE tell me there is an addition[al] entrance still under construction,” tweeted @danawilson.
Other Twitter users expressed annoyance about the the security check.
“Why is there just one TSA area,” wondered @hje91. “There used to be two security areas and now only having one is not as efficient.”
Wyatt said the single terminal is considered design best practices for airports.
“From a security perspective,” he said, “it’s generally considered to be advantageous.”
He added that passengers are misremembering how bad things were at the old airport.
“If you came in Terminal 2,” Wyatt said, “the checkpoint was on the second level. [The security line] would go all the way across the skybridge, down the escalator, to the end of the bag hall and around again. People have forgotten about that part — it was not a great experience.”
The waits at the security checkpoint are partly due, again, to a labor shortage. Wyatt said the federal Transportation Security Administration is understaffed at the Salt Lake City airport by about 5% to 10%.
But the security system itself is designed to be much more efficient than before. Bins automatically pop out for passengers to place their shoes and laptops in. They then roll to the X-ray machine without needing a push. The security lanes also include four bin stations to keep lines moving quickly.
“In the old airport, you’d walk up and, oh, you’re behind Mom and Dad and six kids, they can’t get their boots off, and you can’t really get around them,” Wyatt said. “... The throughput on an hourly basis is [now] much higher.”
Some just find the whole airport experience confusing
More than a few Twitter users have complained that, the long walk aside, the new airport is simply confounding to navigate.
“When arriving, signage for how to pick up the airport parking shuttle is very confusing,” wrote @MaryLynneHulme. “Signage for how to get to passenger pickup is also confusing.”
Airport managers literally had an overnight transition from using the old facility to opening the new one, Wyatt said, and that created some inevitable turbulence that he’s still smoothing out.
“There are some little things, I think, we didn’t pay enough attention to, like way finding,” Wyatt said.
And part of the mazelike nature of the airport is due to the fact that it’s still being built. The concourses are only halfway finished, and, decades from now, they’re going to connect to a third concourse.
But airport officials are listening to public feedback. They’ve added benches to the shuttle area and the tunnel so travelers can take a break from all the walking. They print up signs or edit them to improve the flow of traffic. They also regularly visit the concourses to see where passengers get stuck.
“A group of us come out once a day and go stand in some different place and watch people — where are there problems?” Wyatt said. “But writ large ... this is a really good design.”
What happened to the cool map inlayed into the floor at the old airport?
Nancy Volmer, the airport’s communication and marketing director, said this was a top question when the public learned the old airport would be demolished.
“Initially, we didn’t think we could save the world map,” Volmer said, adding that’s why there’s a reproduction on the wall of the current airport greeting room.
Airport workers were able to salvage the 60-year-old piece, however, and it’s now in storage. It’ll eventually be added to the floor of one of the concourses.
Volmer also shared a bit of airport lore connected to the map.
“By the Great Lakes, there’s a silver piece,” Volmer said. “It’s a bullet. Somebody came in one Saturday night ... and they shot where they wanted to see an airport. And it’s still embedded in there.”