The key to stretching SLC flights to 6,000 miles comes down to 2,500 feet

The airport is shifting from talk of the “long walk” to a longer runway for longer flights.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Delta Air Lines flight takes off at Salt Lake City International Airport on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. The airport aims to lengthen the runway to enable longer nonstop international flights.

Salt Lake City’s nonstop ticket to the world may be a 2,500-foot-long slab of concrete.

Seoul. Rio de Janeiro. Most of Europe. All of those destinations would be in reach for Airbus A350s and A330s if Salt Lake City International Airport officials get their way and extend the runway immediately east of the terminal.

“This airport, the most important thing is to be one stop from the world, right?” Salt Lake City Department of Airports planning director Brady Fredrickson recently told the city’s airport advisory board. “Be one stop from the world market. If you hit Incheon [South Korea], you’re one stop from the world.”

The plan to extend the center runway comes as the airport smashes passenger records and continues its rapid growth.

Bill Wyatt, the airport’s executive director, said an Airbus A350 can make the nearly 6,000-mile trip from Utah’s capital to South Korea with no problem, but the question is whether it would be able to carry a full load.

“We want to be sure they can because if they can’t,” he said, “the flight becomes less profitable and therefore less likely.”

Aviation challenges in SLC

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Delta Air Lines flight lands at Salt Lake City International Airport on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.

Officials note that extending the runway would carry more benefits than unlocking new global destinations.

Airplane engine performance diminishes in Salt Lake City because of its elevation and hot summer temperatures, leaving airlines unable to pack planes to capacity.

When gate agents ask for passengers to give up their seats in the summer, Wyatt said, it’s often because they need to drop weight.

“Because, of course,” he said, “when people book their tickets, the airline can’t necessarily know what the weather is going to be.”

The extra runway space, Fredrickson said, would allow carriers to boost revenue by operating more efficiently and transport more passengers.

By dialing back the thrust needed for takeoff on an extended runway, airlines could save fuel and reduce noise.

“There is a benefit,” he said, “for every flight.”

Wetland considerations

The plan to lengthen the runway would not come without turbulence. Construction crews would need to stretch north into wetlands along the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake.

In an interview, Fredrickson said the airport chose to extend the center runway because it would have the least impact on wetlands. The U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers, he said, would need to sign off before work could start.

A set of transmission lines immediately north of the runway would need to be buried. A second, taller set of lines farther away may be able to stay in place.

It’s important, Fredrickson told the advisory board, for takeoffs and landings over the lake’s shoreline to remain at about the same height they are today.

“It’s one of … the most unique ecosystems in the world, right?” he said. “We want to have as little impact on that as we can and the users of that area.”

If work started today, the longer runway likely wouldn’t open until 2032. The airport first would have to undergo a federally mandated environmental review that could last until 2026.

Another two years would be needed to bury the power lines, and it would take an additional year to relocate 2100 North on the airport’s northern end.

Actual runway construction would last at least two years and wouldn’t be expected to begin until 2030.

The project would be paid for by airport funds and Federal Aviation Administration grants. An official cost estimate has not been calculated, Fredrickson said.

Airport’s growth continues

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake International Airport plans to open a second tunnel to B gates, pictured Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.

While airport officials are in the early stages of figuring out how to expand the airfield, work on the portions of the airport most travelers will notice is well underway.

The Central Tunnel — perhaps the most anticipated coming attraction — is due to debut Oct. 22. The project will shorten the much-lampooned walk from security to the B gates by more than a thousand feet.

Once passengers reach the northern concourse, they’ll see the salvaged terrazzo world map from the previous airport and, in 2025, have access to a new Delta Sky Club.

The final gates on concourse B are expected to open in October 2026, thanks to funding from a long-term lease that will keep Salt Lake City a Delta Air Lines hub through at least mid-2044.

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