Salt Lake City International Airport may see passengers increase by 65% in 20 years

Salt Lake City International Airport officials just finished a year of trying to look into the future to guess what its needs will be in 20 years. They estimate that it could be serving 65% more passengers by then.

Officials delivered that news in the first of a series of public meetings to help develop a new master plan to guide the airport’s next two decades. The last such plan completed back in 1998 accurately foresaw the need and general design of the new $3.6 billion airport now being built essentially atop the existing facility.

Now, about 26 million passengers annually pass through the airport that was designed to handle only 10 million, said Airport Executive Director Bill Wyatt. When the first phase of the new airport opens in September 2020, it will be serving about 28 million.

And by 2037, “total passengers in Salt Lake could grow as high as over 43 million passengers per year,” said Steven Domino, an aviation planner with RS&H, an engineering firm that is overseeing the new master plan.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City airport officials have predicted that the airport might be serving 65% more passengers in the next 20 years. On Thursday, July 18, 2019, construction was still ongoing

Because of uncertainty in looking nearly 20 years ahead, officials developed high, medium and low projections for passengers in 20 years — estimates that the Federal Aviation Administration recently endorsed.

The high estimate is for 43.6 million passengers in 2037; the middle projection is 37.3 million; and the low estimate is 32.8 million.

The new master plan will try to come up with options about how to handle such growth.

The new airport, when totally completed in 2025, will have 79 gates, “about as many as we have today,” Wyatt said. But they will be able to handle larger aircraft, so they may handle more passengers. About a third of the original gates were for small planes that load from ladders on the tarmac and lack jetways. All new gates will have jetways.

Wyatt said the new airport — which will have two parallel concourses of gates connected by tunnels — is designed in a way “that it can be expanded almost infinitely without significant passenger inconvenience” simply by adding more parallel concourses on vacant land that the airport already owns.

Also, the second concourse now under construction is designed to eventually add 15 more gates later. Wyatt said airport officials may choose to add them at the end of current construction to take advantage of crews already on site, rather than have them leave and gear up again later.

Among some other predictions that Domino announced are:

• The number of airport passengers on international flights is expected to increase from the current 900,000 a year to about 2 million a year in 2037, increasing demand on customs and other services.

Wyatt said he expects airlines to base more international flights here once the new airport and its enhanced facilities are completed. Delta Air Lines, for example, has said it will likely add nonstop flights to its Asian hub in South Korea.

• Total takeoffs and landing will increase from 325,000 a year now up to 480,000. Domino noted that in recent years, such operations had actually decreased here — but total passengers increased anyway because larger aircraft were replacing smaller regional jets.

He said most small aircraft have now been replaced, so he sees operations increasing — and facilities will need to be sized to handle that.

• Air cargo operations are expected to nearly triple in 20 years, creating a need for additional cargo facilities, Domino said.

• An increasing percentage of passengers will have Salt Lake City as their origin or destination, and fewer will merely be making connections at the airport. That means as passengers increase, so will the demand for parking and ground transportation — and congestion may increase on airport roads.

Wyatt said the new airport was designed largely before Uber and Lyft emerged — which now generate 60% of ground transportation revenue at the airport. He said the new airport will have expanded areas for them.

Also, he said the new parking garage will be much larger.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Construction to expand the Salt Lake City airport continues Thursday, July 18, 2019.

But he expressed concern about low ridership on Utah Transit Authority TRAX trains to the airport — only about 600 people a day out of some 24,000 people who arrive there. He said public transport in Portland, Ore., where he left as airport director about two years ago, delivered about 10,000 people a day.

The problem may be limited hours of service offered by TRAX to the airport that operates around the clock, Wyatt said, noting its schedules do not work well for 15,000 airport and airline workers who come and go each day.

Some public concern was also raised about the future of general aviation operations at the airport as passenger flights continue to grow. Domino said the master plan will look at possibly shifting more general aviation to the South Valley Regional Airport in West Jordan and the Tooele Valley Airport.

Brady Fredrickson, director of planning at the international airport, said general aviation will always be allowed there. But Wyatt said pilots may be frustrated by increasingly long waits for window for takeoffs and landings.