Salt Lake City airport hit low at 5% of normal, now is back up to 20% to 25%

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this May 27, 2020, photo, Logan Morrison, 18, a missionary from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, waits in line to get to ticket counter, at Salt Lake City International Airport.

Amid COVID-19, the daily passenger count at Salt Lake City International Airport recently hit a low of just 1,300 — a mere 5% or so of normal.

But in recent days, the count has increased slowly to between 20% to 25% of normal, or 5,000 to 7,000 local passengers a day, Airport Executive Director Bill Wyatt told the airport advisory board on Wednesday.

“I’m told by the Delta folks that we are currently their fastest-growing hub,” Wyatt said — but adds that still isn’t much comfort since just five months ago the airport had between 24,000 and 28,000 local passengers arrive at its front door daily.

“But it does feel as though things are kind of creeping back up,” Wyatt said. “We’ve seen a significant amount of added service over the course of the last 30 days.”

He adds that many airport concessions, which had closed for lack of business, have begun to reopen.

He foresees numbers reaching between 8,000 and 10,000 passengers a day, or roughly 33% to 36% of the old normal, this fall. That’s about the time the airport opens the first phase of its $4.1 billion expansion with a new terminal and concourse on Sept. 15.

“There is likely to be a plateau where we will sit for a while,” he predicted.

One reason is that international air service seems slow to return because of the pandemic. While the airport here has limited direct international service, much of the travel through it is has been for international connections elsewhere — slowing a return to normal here.

Another reason is that business travel is slow.

“We are still in the midst of this pandemic, even though things are improving. It’s exacting an economic toll, which historically has always reflected itself in less business travel,” Wyatt said. “If you go out and look at the checkpoint lines, to the extent that we have lines today, you don’t see that many people who look like they’re traveling for business purposes.”

However, he said the airport seems to benefit from a trend of people seeking to vacation at domestic sites, especially at national parks — and are flying to Salt Lake City to travel to them.

Wyatt said the airport is taking steps to help people feel safe enough to return to flying, including machines that automatically disinfect moving handrails on escalators and walkways, extra cleaning and disinfecting, and many more hand sanitizing stations.

Still, he said the airport averages one phone call a day from an airline or concessionaire to report than an employee or customer tested positive for COVID-19.

When that occurs, the airport goes into areas where they worked and “we move everybody out and do a decontamination” and deep cleaning.

He adds, “We’re fortunate because with the camera system at the airport, we’re able to identify the individual and figure out where they went. We may even be able to use this for contract tracing purposes, which is great.”

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