As a pilot would say, the new $3.6 billion Salt Lake City International Airport is beginning its initial descent toward landing. Its first phase opens in just under a year on Sept. 15, 2020.
The first jet bridges are now installed. The new 6-mile-long baggage screening and delivery system is being tested. The first airline agent desk at a gate just went up. Most moving walkways are finished and working but covered for protection from construction dust.
“We’re at the point where we are meeting major milestones about every day” among the 30,000-plus separate construction activities, or projects, that are part of the first phase, said Mike Williams, the airport program director. “We are on schedule and will open on time.”
Williams notes that Salt Lake City is one of few cities in the world to attempt to build an entirely new replacement airport beside its existing facility without interrupting operations. About 1,770 construction workers are laboring there daily, from more than 100 trades.
They hit the afterburners to speed construction of its second phase, a parallel concourse of gates just north of the first. It is now expected to open in October 2020, a few weeks after the first phase. It was not added to the project until 2016, when officials did not expect its completion until December 2020 or perhaps 2021.
Delta Air Lines, which operates a hub in Salt Lake City, will operate in the first concourse (which will eventually have 47 gates, and 25 at its first-phase opening). Other airlines will use the second, northern concourse (and Delta will also use some gates there).
When all currently funded phases are completed in 2024, the airport will have 78 gates — all with jetways. That compares to 71 existing gates, but only 55 have jet bridges now (and the others cannot serve larger aircraft).
All existing terminals and concourses eventually will be demolished, although some will continue to be used for a time during additional construction phases.
Some parts of the airport expansion have already opened, such as new economy parking, a new park-and-wait lot (with restaurants and a gas station) and a rental-car service facility. But most will open together overnight next Sept. 15.
Williams enjoyed pointing out highlights of new facilities Monday — stressing, for example, that the new concourses will have plenty of room, including a big central plaza with 45-foot-tall windows that offer views of mountains and airport operations.
“There will be plenty of seats," he said, “and each one will have a power plug.”
In contrast on Sunday, the existing Concourse G was standing-room only — leaving only narrow paths between people for arriving passengers to move toward exits. Restrooms had lines out their doors. Concession stands were backed up. Security lines in Terminal 2 on Monday also backed up all the way across a skybridge to the parking garage.
“That’s what happens when you have 25 million passengers [a year] in a facility designed to handle about 10 million,” Williams said. He doesn’t see such problems in the new buildings.
For example, more restrooms are being installed, available every few gates. The stalls are bigger to allow taking in baggage or small children. Women’s restrooms will have extra facilities and will include a private room with chairs for nursing mothers.
Pets will have improved facilities, too: including an indoor pet relief area with grasslike turf.
To reduce congestion from groups welcoming returning missionaries or others, the airport added a separate reception area with hundreds of chairs, a fireplace and a food concession — where people can watch for loved ones to exit secure areas. It will also have a copy of the iconic world map now in Terminal 1.
Moving through security is expected to be quicker. The new airport will have 16 security lines together in the terminal and will use more modern equipment. For example, four people at a time will be able to load carry-on items into bins for a conveyor belt, instead of single-file lines.
The new airport will also have more concessions. The airport has already announced its lineup for retail and food. Areas for the concessions have been roughed out. Their design is now ongoing, and installation is expected to begin in January, Williams said.
Delta’s Sky Club will be nearly three times as large as its current facility.
The airport’s new design — with parallel concourses instead of a spider-leg configuration — should also prevent bottlenecks that now sometimes trap planes. It will allow easier future expansion by adding more parallel concourses as needed.
The airport will also have additional gates for international flights with secure corridors to customs (and design will allow some to be used for domestic flights when needed). Because of that, Delta Air Lines has said it plans to add nonstop flights to Korea when the airport is complete (besides flights now to Paris, Amsterdam, London, Canada and Mexico).
The new airport will not have passengers physically walk on any roadways. They will use bridges, and the airport will also use elevated roadways to drop off or pick up passengers.
Parking should also be easier. The new garage will have 3,600 stalls, twice the current number.
“The next six to eight months are going to be intense” to complete major work, Williams said. “We need some time to test systems” after that. “We want to make sure everything works and is ready to go when passengers arrive.”