Despite overcrowding and construction, Salt Lake City International Airport soars to No. 2 in quality ranking

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune The new Salt Lake City International Airport expansion project, Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. The first phase construction of the $3.6 billion project is due to open in 700 days. Nearing completion is the new concourse for aircraft gates, an enclosed terminal, the steel skeleton of a new "gateway" building, a five-story parking garage and elevated roadways.

Salt Lake City International Airport was designed for 10 million passengers a year, but it now handles nearly 27 million.

The result? Parking lots fill. Waiting areas often have more passengers than seats. It has few lounges. Concessions are crowded.

But the airport still just flew to a No. 2 best overall ranking among America’s 30 busiest airports — and was just barely edged out of the top spot. And the ranking comes amid a massive ongoing $3.6 billion project to rebuild the airport.

“It’s amazing,” said Bill Wyatt, airport director for the past year. “As a relative newcomer, I’m amazed at how well this place operates.”

The Points Guy, a travel website, released its annual Best Airports report Thursday, and it ranked Salt Lake City as No. 2 behind only Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. The No. 3 ranking went to Portland, Ore., where Wyatt was director before taking the Salt Lake City job.

The bottom rankings in the new report all went to three airports serving New York City: John F. Kennedy International at the bottom, followed by LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International.

The rankings are based on such things as on-time flight statistics, amenities, how accessible it is to the city, the cost of an Uber or Lyft to get there, the number of restaurants versus the number of passengers, and more.

“Salt Lake City owes itself a pat on the back, as it improved in every broad category it could, except where it was already No. 1,” said Julian Kheel, editorial director at The Points Guy. Salt Lake did rank No. 1 for on-time flight performance among the nation’s 30 busiest airports.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Security line at the Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City Thursday October 5, 2017.

“So why didn’t Salt Lake beat Phoenix Sky Harbor? It was incredibly close,” Kheel said.

“But PHX had a slight edge in our ‘accessibility’ criteria, meaning Sky Harbor was ever-so-slightly more convenient to get to than SLC. It also had cheaper parking, somewhat better public transportation to the airport, and was a little easier on the wallet if you were taking an Uber.”

But Kheel said Salt Lake “excelled in avoiding delays, cancellations and was among the best in relatively quick connections.”

Where could it do better? “Salt Lake could use a few more restaurants for the number of passengers it sees, and it has negligible lounge presence,” Kheel said. “It also needs to catch up to most other major U.S. airports in implementing environmentally friendly initiatives.”

Wyatt said the airport is already well on the way to doing all of that and more as it is building a new terminal, concourses and a parking garage to replace existing facilities — and is doing that on site without disrupting operations. The first phase of the new airport is scheduled to open in fall 2020.

“It is going to be a genuine state-of-the-art facility — and will be operated by the same people who are already getting us this No. 2 award. So maybe No. 1 is on the horizon,” Wyatt said.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City International Airport's first phase construction of the $3.6 billion project is hitting the halfway mark Ñ and large new buildings and elevated roadways are more easily seen. Nearing completion is the new concourse for aircraft gates, an enclosed new terminal, the steel skeleton of a new ÒgatewayÓ building, a new five-story parking garage and elevated roadways.

“There is kind of a family spirit here that you just are not going to see in every airport. Whether it is an airline or the airport or TSA or Customs and Border Protection, people really work closely together to create an experience that, evidently, is second to only one,” he said.

Wyatt said that has made a big difference as the airport struggles with overcrowding and ongoing construction.

“Every square centimeter that we could lease to a concessionaire is leased,” he said. “It’s still just not enough. That’s one of the things driving us to build a new airport. The pressure to provide that service is pretty intense.” He praised concessionaires for providing “a service that is as good as possible in a facility that is so overwhelmed.”

Wyatt also noted, “To be honest, being five minutes from downtown Salt Lake is pretty amazing. Most airports are a half hour to 40 minutes away from the central city. I think that makes a real difference.”

Also, he said being a hub for Delta Air Lines makes a difference. “Because it’s a hub for them, they really focus intensely on their operations. So on-time arrival and departure are very important to them.”