Salt Lake City’s new $4.1 billion airport is now open, has a smooth takeoff

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eric Phillips, center left, senior vice president of airport customer service and cargo for Delta Air Lines, and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, center right, cut the ribbon at the opening of at the new terminal at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.

Arriving about 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, Bryanna Woodard of Tennessee was among the first passengers to enter the new $4.1 billion Salt Lake City International Airport on its first day of operations.

“This place is gorgeous,” she said looking around as she waited for the first flight out at 6 a.m. “It’s literally beautiful and so well organized. It’s like a dream compared to a lot of other airports.”

She found it so smooth sailing that the official number of that first flight to Atlanta didn’t even bother her: Delta Air Lines Flight 2020 — specially named for the year the new airport opened, but it has generally been a hard year with the COVID-19 pandemic and its many associated disasters.

Tuesday was a smooth takeoff for the first phase of the new airport that is called a “cathedral of transportation” and the state’s largest-ever public works project.

Airport Executive Director Bill Wyatt was among those who spent a long night shutting down the old facilities — which closed about midnight — and quickly opening up a shiny new terminal, concourse and garage a few hours later. Another concourse will open Oct. 27.

“It was like a symphony watching all the planning come together and teams making everything happen quickly,” he said, including painting new stripes on the airport road, changing all the directional signs and moving aircraft over to the new concourse. “It took a year and half just to plan all that.”

Wyatt said a few technical glitches appeared here and there. “But there was nothing that was a showstopper.”

For example, John Collins of Wellsville arrived in a taxi about 4 a.m. as some of the final switch-overs were happening, and his cabdriver was confused by the changed road configuration. “He had to ask directions. But someone was there to help.” Collins also said he had to get used to finding his way in the new airport, “but I just followed the signs and it was fine.”

Wyatt said the airport “plans to go overboard for a while” in having plenty of extra people to help passengers find their way around. He added that the new roads — including an elevated road to the drop-off area — are safer and easier to understand than the often-changing lanes amid construction of recent years.

Wyatt said a silver lining of the pandemic is that smaller crowds made the transition easier as everyone started using new systems ranging from new-generation security scanners to the seven miles of new conveyor belts for baggage.

Noting that the security checkpoint backed up a bit as it opened initially — but smoothed out fairly quickly — Wyatt said, “It’s really the first time we’ve exercised it with passengers. So not having 30,000 coming through the front door on opening day was helpful,” the number of local passengers that had arrived pre-COVID.

The airport expected 6,500 local passengers arriving Tuesday, or about 21% of the pre-COVID normal.

Passengers on the first flight saw a cake shaped like the new terminal, plenty of balloons and commemorative cookies. That flight, plus others, was given a first-day salute as firetrucks shot arches of water over them.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Delta Vice President Eric Phillips were at a ribbon-cutting for the new concourse.

“We’ve known for a very long time that the Salt Lake City airport has been an incredible gateway for people to enjoy the amazing beauty and splendor of Salt Lake City and the state of Utah,” Phillips said. “With this building, it serves as a foundation for Salt Lake City to now be a gateway to the world.”

Delta CEO Ed Bastian has hinted that with the new airport — Delta’s fourth largest hub — it may look at offering nonstop service to Asia, beyond the nonstop service it offers to Europe.

The mayor hailed the airport for being “beautiful, on time, on budget and for being built without a dollar of your taxes.” The bulk is being paid through passenger fees collected by airlines. She also praised it for having one of the most energy-efficient designs of any airport in the world.

Some people just had to be on the first flight out — including former Airport Advisory Board members J.T. Martin and Mickey Gallivan.

“I was on the City Council when we passed money to explore building this,” Martin said. “I wanted to be here at the end.”

Gallivan said similarly, “I was on the board when we poured the first pillars” six years ago, “and I just had to be on the first flight out of here. I’m turning around in Atlanta and coming right back.”

Wyatt noted it is the first completely new hub airport build in the 21st century, and it “will serve the needs of this city through the rest of the century.” The old airport was designed to handle 10 million people a year, but had been serving 26 million before the pandemic.

While the opening date had been planned for two years, Wyatt said he wondered if it would happen after the pandemic hit and air traffic nearly disappeared — worrying that airlines footing much of the bill may want to delay or pull back.

“But, you know what, Delta especially — because they are the largest — said to us, ‘Put your foot on the gas pedal. Let’s find a way to do this faster.’” That is allowing workers to finish the second major phase two years earlier (by taking advantage of fewer passengers to demolish existing older terminals more quickly) and save $300 million.

The new airport includes higher-tech security screening that is estimated to be up to 30% faster. The new garage is twice as big. Elevated roadways now provide more room for passenger drop-off and pickup — including larger areas reserved for Uber and Lyft.

Waiting areas have far more seats, each with personal power plugs and two individual armrests.

Far more food and retail options will be available — eventually 58 of them in the first phase that by contract will offer “street pricing,” without airport markups.

Passengers will never be farther than 150 feet from a restroom, each with far more stalls. And the airport now has 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).

And art and murals are everywhere — including the restrooms.

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 calls the airport a cathedral to transportation. “It occurred to me that we don’t really build houses of worship on that scale anymore, like the cathedrals of Europe” — but the airport is that expansive with plenty of art, he said. “I want that travel experience to be something that you look forward to and not stress out about, and to be inspired and calm.”

Wyatt said that after 25 years of planning and saving, plus six years of construction, Tuesday was “such a bright spot in what has been such a challenging year. To see passengers actually using the facility just makes me happy.”

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