Is Salt Lake City among the worst airports for layovers?

SLC International has been ranked the 13th-most unpleasant airport for those stuck waiting for a connecting flight. And it has nothing to do with the long walk.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A traveler relaxes before his flight at Salt Lake City International Airport, Mar. 13, 2021.

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It constantly racks up complaints for the long walk to gates, but now the new Salt Lake City International Airport is getting dinged for something else — a bad experience for travelers stuck there on layovers.

The distinction comes from FinanceBuzz, a personal finance website. According to its review released earlier this month, which examined stats on canceled or delayed flights and what travelers can do as they wait, SLC is among the 15 worst airports in America for layovers.

Fortunately, it’s not the No. 1 worst. That designation falls to Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Salt Lake City’s ranking is lucky No. 13, which means it’s at least doing better than airports like Minneapolis−Saint Paul International, Orlando International and Dallas/Fort Worth International, but not quite as good as New York’s LaGuardia.

Meanwhile, Miami International Airport ranks as the best airport for layovers. Seattle-Tacoma International, Portland International, San Francisco International and, somehow, Los Angeles International also fall within the 15 best places to have your travel interrupted.

“Travel is a huge component of [personal finance], whether it’s travel credit cards or ways people can save,” said Josh Koebert, the author and data researcher for the review. “It’s an area we approach frequently and try to explore form different angles.”

FinanceBuzz recently made headlines after it offered $1,300 for one aspirant to watch 13 horror movies while wearing a Fitbit to record their heart rate, in an effort to prove low-budget flicks can be just as scary as high-end, CGI-laden productions.

All that is to say that FinanceBuzz’s “studies” aren’t exactly paragons of scientific analysis. Perhaps its slight of Salt Lake City is a little unfair?

At least ‘you can be pretty confident the flight is going to take off’

For the review, Koebert looked at the 50 busiest airports in the U.S. and ranked them according to factors like the ratio of restaurants and shops to gates as well as the percentage of flights canceled or delayed.

So far so good — who likes a delayed flight? And if your flight is delayed, it helps to have somewhere nearby to grab a bite or pick up some reading material to pass the time.

According to FinanceBuzz’s data, Salt Lake City International actually does pretty well when it comes to cancelations. From June 2020 to June 2021, SLC saw .16% of its flights canceled. That’s right — a mere fraction of a percent. Its rate of cancelations is the lowest among all of the airports FinanceBuzz ranked, including ones that made it on the “best” list.

“If you’re flying out of there, you can be pretty confident the flight is going to take off,” Koebert said. “That’s a positive.”

The Salt Lake Tribune store is one of many shops available to peruse at Salt Lake City International airport. Unfortunately, gates outnumber shops and restaurants at the airport, which makes it bad for layovers according to a recent FinanceBuzz review.

But Salt Lake City International has 1.5 eateries or stores for each of its 66 gates, according to information Koebert collected from the airport’s website. That ratio isn’t great, given that many of the ranked airports have restaurants and shops that outnumber gates.

Keep in mind, however, that Salt Lake City’s new airport opened right in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic. Travel tanked. Supply chains shut down. All the new shops and restaurants that wanted to open at SLC faced unprecedented labor shortages.

SLC International is still growing, which airport staff like Nancy Volmer, the airport’s director of communication and marketing, find themselves frequently pointing out.

“More restaurants and shops will open in 2023-24 when SLC opens Concourse A-east and more beyond that when Concourse B-east opens,” Volmer said in an email. “... I suspect as we open up Phase 2 and Phase 3 that our layover rankings will improve.”

One (large) lounge

The two factors that really tanked SLC’s ranking are the numbers of lounges and nearby hotels, or lack thereof.

SLC only has one lounge, the Delta Sky Club, for exclusive travelers to escape the hustle and bustle of the terminal. The highest-ranking airports have as many as 70 lounges. All but two have 10 or more.

“You are correct that Delta is the only airline lounge available at SLC,” Volmer said, adding that it’s the largest lounge in Delta’s system. “We do have restaurants that serve alcohol, so I suppose it depends on the definition of a lounge.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The outdoor patio in the Delta Sky Club, in the new terminal at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.

Bonus: the nonexclusive airport eateries and bars don’t require special credit cards, $545 annual membership fees or business class tickets.

It makes sense that FinanceBuzz would take lounges into account, since it makes a commission from people who sign up for the fancy credit cards sometimes required to access them. But Koebert said the review weighted lounges the same as other features he took into account.

“The average number of airport lounges in this analysis is four,” Koebert said, noting that makes SLC an outlier even if its only lounge is large.

You can (probably?) walk to at least two hotels

The other factor that appeared to crater SLC’s ranking was “number of hotels within walking distance.” Wait, who walks from an airport to a hotel?

Airports are usually surrounded by busy freeways. And most hotels near airports have free shuttles anyway, including the two FinanceBuzz deemed walkable from SLC.

It’s worth noting the path that’s required to reach those hotels on foot apparently needs maintenance in places (fun when you have luggage), might require a background check and is accessed by a jaunt down a road “that mostly serves local commercial traffic to air freight carriers.” Sounds relaxing!

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Danny Fafita pulls his luggage as he walks with his mother Fafita on the first day of the new terminal at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.

“[Walking] probably is not ideal for most people, but there are a couple airports where there is [a hotel] connected,” Koebert said. “That’s what we’re getting at. Where the hotel is extremely close, maybe part of the airport.”

Still, FinanceBuzz’s definition of “walking distance” seems a bit arbitrary — they deem a hotel within two miles walkable.

(Not to completely nitpick this issue, but the source FinanceBuzz used to collect its hotel data, Yelp, calls two miles “biking distance.”)

But in half the time it takes to walk two miles to a hotel, travelers can hop on TRAX (the new airport platform just opened) and spend their layover exploring the heart of Utah’s capital city.

“SLC is fortunate in that it is located [within] minutes of our downtown where a plethora of overnight lodging is located,” Volmer said. “There has been talk in the past about building a hotel at the airport, but [we’re] not sure one is necessary with the number of options available nearby.”

Hey, at least it’s pretty

In my own unscientific study, I searched Twitter for people mentioning layovers in Salt Lake City. The results showed people jogging in City Creek Canyon, visiting the Bonneville Salt Flats or admiring the airport’s art. They enjoyed a local beer or two. Some even had nice things to say about the airport’s only lounge.

So layovers here aren’t all bad, it seems.

The oft-bemoaned long walk from Salt Lake City International’s farthest gate to the terminal remains the source of much of the airport’s negative feedback, but it wasn’t among the factors that FinanceBuzz considered.

Still, Koebert agreed that sprinting half a mile to catch a connecting flight can make for a pretty unenjoyable experience. Maybe even more so than walking next to Interstate 80 to reach a hotel two miles away.

“I personally was at the Salt Lake City airport in July; we had a company retreat in that area,” he said. “I can understand when you say you’ve had a lot of complaints. That is a long way from gate to exit. I would not want to be doing that if I had a layover.”