The new Salt Lake City International Airport — described as a “cathedral to transportation” — is now cleared for takeoff, despite recent worries that the COVID-19 pandemic might delay that.
After six years of construction, officials held an unveiling ceremony Thursday to show off the first phase of the new $4.1 billion facility — which was essentially built on top of the existing airport while operations continued. It includes a shiny new terminal, concourse and parking garage that will officially open for business Sept. 15.
“We love to welcome the world and all of its incredible diversity. And now we will through an international airport that is deserving of this capital city in this amazing state,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.
“This is the biggest public works project in the history of our state,” added City Council Chairman Chris Wharton. “That is something we can be proud of.”
The new airport includes higher-tech security screening that is estimated to be up to 30% faster. It has seven miles of conveyor belts for baggage. The new garage is twice as big, with kiosks to allow checking bags there to allow walking into the airport without them.
Waiting areas have far more seats, each with personal power plugs and two individual armrests. Elevated roadways will provide more room for passenger drop-off and pickup — including larger areas reserved for Uber and Lyft. The airport is designed to be one of the world’s most energy-efficient.
Art and murals are everywhere — including the restrooms. Passengers will never be farther than 150 feet from a restroom, each with far more stalls. And the airport will have the largest-in-the-world Delta Sky Club at 28,000 square feet to enhance Delta Air Lines’ hub operations here.
It also has a special “greeting room” in the terminal lobby — moving constant celebrations for returning missionaries and others out of regular foot traffic. That area can accommodate up to 400 people, has plenty of seating, a fireplace, a wall showing airport history and a world map (reimagined from one on the floor of the old airport terminal).
“This is a moment 25 years in the making,” including all the needed planning and construction, said airport Executive Director Bill Wyatt.
He adds that the on-time opening was in doubt when the pandemic hit. As air traffic nearly disappeared, he said he wondered if Delta and the other airlines — which are footing almost all of the bill — would want to pause or halt construction.
“After consulting with Delta, the answer from Atlanta [headquarters] was, ‘Put your foot on the gas pedal.’ With the support of all of our carriers, Delta, Southwest, American, United, JetBlue, Alaska and Frontier, we did just that,” Wyatt said.
The airlines even asked to speed up additional phases of the project.
“We’ve redesigned the second phase in a way that allows us to open two years sooner than we had expected originally, and save up to $300 million on the final project cost,” he said, by keeping contractors on-site.
Wyatt said some construction on the soon-to-open phase continues, but the airport will open as scheduled Sept. 15. “There may be a few guys running around with lightbulbs and screwdrivers.”
A first new concourse of gates will be just for Delta. A second new concourse for the other airlines is scheduled to open Oct. 27 — and they will be using some existing gates until then. The new airport will feature concourses that are parallel to each other, instead of the current crab-leg design that bottlenecks planes coming and going.
“We have powered through this together,” said Delta Vice President Scott Santoro, who also praised the new airport as a gold standard for new hub airports.
Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta, which before the pandemic provided about 70% of the flights from the airport, also wrote an email to its employees worldwide on Thursday hailing the new facilities as a gleam of hope during bleak pandemic times.
Bastian said the new airport will “bring together innovation, sustainability, convenience, and comfort all under one roof — providing a foundation for Delta’s continued growth in the western U.S. when we move into the recovery.”
Officials hailed the new airport’s design and art for reflecting Utah and its landscape.
Wyatt noted that entailed incorporating “the colors and textures of Utah like sage and copper throughout the airport,” and adding “large windows so passengers could gaze out at the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountain ranges while waiting at their gates.”
In also incorporates many large-scale pieces of art.
For example, just inside the door is “The Falls,” a seven-story, 5,000-pound sculpture of glass “inspired by being up in the canyons and waterfalls going down,” said Gordon Huether, art consultant for the airport.
Also, a wavy sculpture lining much of the new terminal is called “The Canyon,” inspired by the slot canyons in southern Utah. Huether said it aims to make visitors “think about the millions of years it took of water and air to create the erosion that created these incredible patterns.”
Huether added, “You don’t have to know diddly about art to be moved, awed and inspired when you walk through this airport. You don’t have to know diddly about art to know you are here in Utah, and all will be inspired to be in this cathedral to transportation.”
Art is even in the restrooms. They include “whimsy wall” murals with everything from a sunset on the Great Salt Lake to abstract art about the feeling of accelerating and decelerating, clouds, birds, wildflowers, books, rainbows, American Indian art, deserts and service dogs.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox read a speech by Gov. Gary Herbert, who was traveling, that said the new airport is one of “the most critical economic engines fueling Utah’s economy.” He added that opening it in a pandemic also represents faith in a brighter future.
He noted the airport had a record 30,000 passengers a day in February before the pandemic, which dropped to a low point of 1,500 shortly afterward. “Like you, I believe in a brighter tomorrow, that our airport passengers will not only equal what we had before the pandemic but will far exceed them.”
The current airport was designed to handle 10 million passengers a year but has been serving nearly 26 million. The new airport is designed to handle 34 million and will allow easy expansion by adding more parallel concourses.
Officials also provided items for a time capsule Thursday.
Mendenhall donated a COVID-19 face mask, a copy of the city’s new Black Lives Matter mural, some plaster that fell from City Hall during the recent earthquake (the new airport is considered quakeproof), and acorns from City Hall as a symbol of growth.
Delta provided one of the shirts that its employees have been selling during the pandemic to raise money for the needy. Wyatt put in a copy of a 1996 airport master plan, which included a cover illustration of what it thought a new airport would look like — which he said was remarkably accurate.