Salt Lake City International Airport’s 65% drop in passengers from COVID looks pretty good in national picture

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Passengers and employees walk down the new terminal at the Salt Lake City International Airport, Sept. 15, 2020. As hard hit as the airport is by COVID-19, it is faring better than many other airports across the nation.

Salt Lake City International Airport is still suffering a walloping 65% decrease in passengers as the pandemic continues. But actually, that is the envy of the airline industry as most other airports are faring even worse.

Denver International Airport, like Salt Lake, is also doing relatively well. So, Airline Weekly says that shows “the emergence of the Rocky Mountain region as one of the crisis era’s relative winners,” and says the two airports are wielding “mountain market muscle.”

To quantify that least-bad situation, federal data show that airport passengers were down in July by a national average of 73% compared to the same month a year earlier, while Salt Lake was down by 65% and Denver was down by 61%.

Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Salt Lake City airport — which just opened the first phase of a $4.1 billion rebuild — sees several reasons why his airport is suffering a bit less than most.

Much of it boils down to Utah serving as the gateway to some relatively safe vacation spots — such as national parks or ski slopes — at a time when personal travel is becoming more important to airlines as the pandemic made business travel largely vanish.

Wyatt says, “There is clearly a percentage in the population that is just suffering from cabin fever and they really want to get out,” and Utah’s mountains and parks offer relatively safe social distancing, and ski slopes may be soon.

“You’re not going to go to Disneyland. You’re not going to go to New York,” Wyatt says. “So, people say, ‘Maybe I’ll go see the national parks in Utah or just get outdoors where there is a little Vitamin D.’”

Wyatt adds that a stroll through his airport now easily shows that many people are deciding to head for the outdoors.

“There are a lot of backpacks,” he said. “They’re really looking for the kinds of opportunities that you can get here in Utah.”

Airline Weekly noted that besides serving as a gateway to Utah’s national parks, the Salt Lake airport is also the closest hub serving Yellowstone National Park — which it said saw a 2% increase in July visitors this year at a time when many tourist attractions suffered big decreases.

Also, Salt Lake is helped because it’s a hub for Delta Air Lines, which has reduced service here less than at its other hubs — again perhaps in part because Salt Lake has been a relatively strong attraction itself during the pandemic.

Data provided by the airport shows, for example, that Delta projects that in October, it will offer more than 90% of the number of seats on flights out of Salt Lake City as it did a year earlier — the highest percentage at any hub of any airline in America.

In comparison, Delta’s largest hub in Atlanta will have just over 60% of the seats offered a year ago.

Wyatt said Salt Lake as a hub has also benefits as many airlines reduced the number of nonstop flights offered to save money, forcing more people to connect through hubs.

Wyatt pointed, for instance, to the many nonstops to Europe and other destinations prior to the pandemic offered at Portland International Airport in Oregon, where he was the previous director.

“When COIVD hit and the slowdown in the industry began, their traffic reduced to a point where the farthest east you could fly from Portland, Oregon, is to Salt Lake City,” Wyatt said.

“And I think there are a lot of airports like that,” he added. “So, Delta is connecting a lot of people to Salt Lake who might otherwise fly nonstop.”

He said about twice as many people connect through Salt Lake City as passengers who originate here.

For example, he said on Tuesday, about 7,000 local passengers left from the airport — but another 14,000 to 15,000 made connections there from other flights.

Airline Weekly also listed some other reasons it believes the Salt Lake airport is suffering less than most. It notes that one of the city’s biggest travel buyers is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its missionary force. Business Travel News ranks the church as No. 43 on its list of spending on U.S. air travel, spending $93 million in 2018.

Also, Airline Weekly notes that Salt Lake City, like Denver, traditionally has mostly offered domestic instead of international flights. Because international flights have been especially hard hit by the pandemic, that is another reason Salt Lake suffered less than airports with a higher percentage of such flights.

With everything, Wyatt says he is still a bit surprised that a 65% reduction in passengers could be seen as relatively good — and says others do, too. “There’s a lot of chatter about it in the industry.”

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