Coronavirus may help Salt Lake airport finish expansion 2 years early and save $300M

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The area known as The Canyon begins to take shape with crews stretching fabric over metal fins to simulate southern Utah canyon walls during the first phase of construction of the Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

Salt Lake City International Airport saw only 13% of its normal number of passengers Wednesday. But the alarming drop has an upside: an unexpected opportunity to save hundreds of millions of dollars and complete its ongoing $4.1 billion replacement project years early.

Officials say the dearth of passengers will allow the early demolition of existing old terminals and concourses, which no longer will be needed during later phases of expansion to supply gates for once-expected high demand now erased by the coronavirus pandemic.

So, expansion now “will be two years faster and up to $300 million cheaper,” Executive Director Bill Wyatt told the city’s airport advisory board Wednesday as he unveiled the plans.

The airport aims to open the first phase of replacement facilities Sept. 15, including a new terminal and concourse. Part of a second parallel concourse is scheduled to open a month later.

Airport officials had planned to continue to use many gates in the adjacent existing terminals for a time in a complicated process in which some would be demolished to expand new concourses over where they had stood. Then the airport would tear down and expand a few more gates and repeat that expensive process for years.

Wyatt said that was initially needed to maintain the number of gates that airlines said they needed at the heretofore busy airport. But like all airports in America, Salt Lake City’s is no longer busy.

“Today, we’re anticipating 3,400 passengers," Wyatt said. “Ordinarily, it would be 26,000 or 27,000. A month ago, it was only 1,500.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Signs encouraging social distancing are displayed due to the ongoing battle against COVID-19 as crews continue their work in the first phase of construction of the Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

When will the airport return to numbers seen before the pandemic? “I would say it’s a good three to five years,” Wyatt said, based on discussion with other airports and airlines.

When that became apparent, Wyatt said airport officials started to reexamine later phases of airport expansion for how to save money and speed completion.

“What we’re proposing to do instead of keeping old Concourse B and old Concourse C open, is to tear down the existing airport facilities after the new SLC phase one is open — tear them all down at once,” he said. “That will deliver the whole project much more quickly and save as much as $300 million.”

But it will come with a certain amount of potential pain, too, he said.

“Many of the airlines are telling us they want more gates faster. I love their enthusiasm," he said. “But my job is as well to look out for Salt Lake City, and I think that this approach is going to leave us with greater flexibility, less risk, less money [spent] and faster delivery.”

If air traffic returns more quickly than anticipated and creates a need for gates that will have been torn down, Wyatt said the airport has a contingency plan for that.

It will then use a “hard stand” process where some aircraft would park at remote parts of the airfield, and passengers would be bused to them from concourses. The airport used that process temporarily recently when it demolished its old Concourse E for small regional jets as part of ongoing construction.

“It is certainly not something you want to do as a permanent solution," he said, "but it’s a short-term solution that allows us to flex into larger passenger volumes” if they return early.

The plan could also solve some other problems with concessionaires in the new facilities — who bid for contracts assuming they would see far more passengers than now is likely.

Wyatt said many had complained that the new facilities would have far more concessions than could likely be supported, especially with continuing competition from old Concourse B and C if they continued to be used.

“Part of that concern went away because they don’t have that competition any longer” from the old concourses, he said. Also, he said the airport is agreeing to allow new concessionaires not to open all their locations when the new terminal opens Sept. 15 “because the volume simply isn’t there to justify it.”

Somewhat related, Wyatt said Hertz rental car is struggling from losses during the pandemic and is not sure that it can afford to open new facilities it planned in the new expansion when it opens. But he said other car rental agencies do plan to open then.

Wyatt said the airport, like airlines, will continue to work hard to try to restore confidence that flying is safe — and he expects to see such things as face masks, social distancing and even taking temperatures well into the future.

He said the new expansion will have some features to help improve safety.

“You’re going to see mechanical devices that are attached to the handrails on the moving walks that clean them all the time,” he said. “All of the restrooms will have essentially nontouch apparatus.” Also, the airport will have fogging devices to help sanitize areas.

Wyatt said the airport has seen a small uptick in travel in recent weeks and days that provide a hopeful sign, although it is still only a fraction of normal.

“There’s a little more energy in the airport," he said. “It feels good because there were many days when you would walk in and not see a single passenger.”

He added that daily projections for riders have been low because of many people who book at the last minute. “It’s attributed to cabin fever. People are just desperate to get out of the house and go see mom and dad or go see the kids.”