Bill Wyatt was officially retired for just three days last summer after 16 years of managing the airports and marine ports in Portland, Ore. Then an executive search firm asked him to consider applying to become director of Salt Lake City International Airport.
He poked around quickly, saw it as intriguing, then exciting — and his retirement became very short-lived.
“There isn’t another place in the country where you can do what’s happening here, which is build a brand-new airport” next to an existing airport without disrupting operations, he says. It also will be the nation’s first new major airport since 9/11 drove massive security changes, and the first in a new century of momentous changes in air operations.
On top of that, the job has the challenge of managing, for now, an old airport that is operating at twice its design capacity.
In addition to all the professional challenges, Wyatt allows that it didn’t hurt in making his decision that Utah offers “amazing” hiking and skiing, which he loves.
“It was the hand of God that led him here,” says J.T. Martin, a former Salt Lake City Council member who as then-chairman of the city’s Airport Advisory Board helped interview candidates for director.
Other applicants “were this qualified,” Martin says, holding his hand at nose height. “But Bill was here,” he says, raising a hand as high as possible, then standing on tiptoe.
“He’s the right man at the right place at the right time,” he adds. “I mean, he was the chief of staff to a governor [in Oregon]. He was a state legislator. He not only ran Portland’s airport, he ran its marine ports — and land that was essentially like an inland port. And this is his swan song, a chance to put a nice cap on his career.”
Wyatt can navigate the inevitable politics as Utah launches an inland port next door to the airport, plus direct airport operations, Martin says. “And he’s a nice guy.”
Thin and tall with gray hair and glasses, Wyatt tends to dress casually instead of in suits. He describes his leadership style in a way that sounds like the way a civics book might describe ideal politics.
When tough decisions are faced, “I prefer to get the voices and the people who are critical in a room and let folks air it out. I want to hear all the voices and make sure the people who have contrary opinions have a chance to express that.”
In building a new $3.6 billion airport, “There are a lot of opinions, and I want to make sure people have a chance to speak.”
Cyndy Miller is another member of the Airport Advisory Board. With her experience as former director of the Cleveland airport and also working for the Federal Aviation Administration, she gives Wyatt high praise: “He’s among the best managers I have ever seen.”
Wyatt describes himself as a “walk-around manager” who “likes to give people a pretty good sense of what their job is, then I let them do it.”
“He’s intelligent,” Miller says. “He has worked hard to learn about and understand the community and the airport, and build bridges.”
Inland port and politics
Wyatt says his old political skills may be needed.
“Let’s be honest. A job like this has a lot of politics associated with it,” he says. That includes interacting with state officials as they plan the adjacent inland port, a massive shipping-and-receiving hub where goods may clear customs more quickly than at coastal ports.
Mayor Jackie Biskupski has opposed the way the state approved and designed the proposed trade hub, arguing it will take away city control of taxes and development in its vast northwest quadrant. But the City Council has supported it as legislators agreed to some changes in the original legislation.
Wyatt says the new inland port creates opportunities for the airport but maybe not to the extent that some believe — including assertions he’s heard that it may increase air cargo so much that the airport would need an additional runway.
Instead, he figures the inland port may slightly increase international cargo flights perhaps to a total of 10 a week, which he says is actually pretty good but not a big change in operations.
“Air cargo is expensive. Shipping by air costs about $4 or $5 a pound. Only high-value things are shipped by air,” Wyatt explains.
“It could be that the passenger operations at the airport actually become more important to the [inland port] than the cargo aspect,” he says. The new port could attract more workers and companies — if their bosses are able to connect easily to other parts of the world.
“That’s why this airport is such an immensely important economic asset for this region,” especially because of the extensive number of nonstop flights it offers as a hub for Delta Air Lines.
“If we didn’t have Delta operating a hub here,” he says, “the network of nonstop flights available here would be more like Colorado Springs instead of one of the largest hubs in the United States.”
A $3.6 billion big job
The most-watched part of Wyatt’s job is overseeing construction of the new airport next to an existing one. “This is the largest construction project in the history of the state," he says. “And everybody has an eye on it.”
It was designed and started before Wyatt arrived, under the leadership of former Director Maureen Riley, who retired at age 67 after 10 years on the job. Still, with construction at full throttle, Wyatt says, “every day is filled with relentless decision-making about things that couldn’t have been planned six years ago — the carpet, the millwork and on ad infinitum.”
So he walks through construction areas twice a day. He keeps tabs on work and the committees that make many of the decisions. But he has the final word.
“I keep asking myself, should I really be deciding a carpet color? The answer is: There is no choice. Somebody has to do it.” When asked what it’s like to be in charge of spending $3 billion, he smiles and says, “It’s closer to $4 billion — and it’s fun.”
He says the big project "is on time and is on budget. When I say that, some people flinch a bit because there has been controversy.” Costs have grown because the scope of the project has expanded at the request of those who are paying for almost all of it — the airlines.
For example, Delta made a late request to add 9,000 square feet to what will now be a 27,000-square-foot Sky Club. “It was at a late stage of development so it was pretty expensive to add that. They said, ‘We’re good with it,’” and agreed to cover it, Wyatt says.
Similarly, Delta asked to add a “sterile corridor” to keep international travelers separate from others until they pass through customs. It was another late addition, and the airlines agreed to cover costs.
“What it means is they have more interest in international service, which I am really big on," Wyatt says. “I have spent a lot of energy recruiting and building more interest in international service for Salt Lake. I think there is a good market for it here.”
The airport is spending $70 million a month or more now on the vast construction and has 1,750 workers on site daily. Wyatt wishes they could find more.
“Basically there is zero unemployment in this valley, so go try to find an electrician or carpenter,” he says. If trade people “can stand up and show up to work on time, they’ve got a job because we are desperate. We’d like to have 2,000 out there by the end of summer, but I doubt we’re going to make it.”
He says contracts have locked in costs to the airport through the end of the first phase, scheduled for completion in late 2020. He predicts that airlines and the public will love the new airport.
“Airline people are going to die and go to heaven when they see this,” he says. “It’ll be incredibly efficient for aircraft movement and handling because everything is new: The baggage system is new, the jetways are new,” and bottlenecks for operations at the current concourses will be eliminated.
He says passengers will have far more terminal and concourse space, more garage parking, redesigned security to speed travelers along — and far more beautiful surroundings.
“The great hall is going to be breathtaking” in the new terminal, for example. He says “this immense hall is 80-90 feet high” and will have a piece of art “to reflect the look of the canyons on the walls.” He says passengers on the second floor of the terminal and concourses will see mountains in both directions, and the Great Salt Lake.
The ‘old’ challenge
The new airport is needed because the current facility is handling about 26 million passengers a year, more than double its design capacity. Wyatt heaps praise on airport workers for making that work despite difficulties.
He says a Delta Air Lines vice president perhaps best described what they have accomplished.
“He said this airport was built about the same time as LaGuardia Airport. [That New York City airport] is filthy, it smells, it’s crowded. But here, it is clean, it looks good, it’s well taken care of,” Wyatt says. “I think that is a great metaphor in general for the airport operation.”
Wyatt adds that cooperation between airlines and the airport “is extraordinary and has to be, because it has to run like a Swiss watch or it will break. … The day-to-day operations of the airport are as good as any I’ve ever seen.”
The airport is so crowded now that some passengers waiting for flights cannot find seats in waiting areas or at restaurants — which the new airport will remedy.
He says the airport averages 23,000 local passengers entering the airport a day. “Last year it was 18,000. If it gets over 26,000, the operations staff starts to hyperventilate. We’ve had some 30,000-passenger days. That doesn’t include the 30,000 who are connecting, and we have 15,000 employees.
“So there are days when there will be 65,000 people in these buildings that were designed for about 10,000, and you can feel it,” he says. That would make the airport equivalent to the state’s ninth largest city on such days.
Wyatt has been “blown away” by how such a lean staff — by airport standards — is able to ensure that often-severe weather “really is not a factor with air operations” and the airport manages to nearly always stay open.
“It’s like the Olympics of airport snow clearing here,” he says, adding it is more robust than he has ever seen with its amount of equipment. “The forecasts are also extraordinary,” saying crews predict to the minute when snow will hit, “and they are out there on it. They are de-icing, they are brooming, they are pushing.”
Salt Lakers may not realize what they have in such a major airport nearby, he suspects. Wyatt says that was reinforced to him when he walked two blocks from his new home in the upper Avenues to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and saw some bowhunters there scouting deer.
“Where else in the country can you be on the one hand 10 minutes from an international airport, and three blocks from bowhunting? It’s pretty amazing,” he says. “I like it here.”