While Salt Lake City International Airport’s traffic is way down, it expects a busy summer 2021

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Passengers and employees walk down the new terminal at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Sept. 15, 2020.

Passenger traffic is still down by 55% at Salt Lake City International Airport amid the pandemic. But its director said Wednesday that with news that COVID-19 vaccines are coming soon, he expects air traffic there to take off again next summer.

With national leaders saying vaccines should be widely available by April or so, “What that probably means for us is that we’re going to have a very busy summer season,” Bill Wyatt, the airport’s executive director, told the Airport Advisory Board.

“People are really ready to travel, to just get out of their house and go somewhere,” he said. “Once the vaccine is widely available, people are going to feel more comfortable doing so.”

He noted that Delta Air Lines — which operates about 70% of the flights at the airport with its hub operations there — has been flying as many planes as a year ago,” however they are “typically about half full. That’s what we will see change.”

So, the airport is even reevaluating the construction plans for its ongoing $4.1 billion project to replace all of its old facilities. It wants to ensure that construction will not interfere with a potentially busy summer next year.

The airport has already completed and opened a new terminal, parking garage and portions of two gate concourses, but it is continuing construction to extend those concourses as the old terminal and gates are demolished to make way. The airport had accelerated construction to save money when allowed by less-busy operations as ridership plummeted.

“We are actively looking at all the options available to us to be sure that while we continue furiously with the pace of construction for phase two, that we’re also able to accommodate the traffic,” Wyatt said.

He adds that with higher ridership on the horizon, the airport has also directed several more concessionaires to begin construction on yet-to-be-used space in new facilities to serve expected bigger crowds.

Wyatt also said next summer may be the true test of how well new facilities can handle big crowds, after easily handling small ones since it opened recently.

Data given to the board on Wednesday showed that passenger traffic at the airport was down by 55% in September, and down by 54% for the entire yea, including months before the pandemic hit. Domestic passengers are down by 53% for the year, and international travelers have decreased by 71%.

Even given that, Wyatt said, “Salt Lake continues to see passenger volumes that are greater than almost anywhere else in the country.”

He sees two main reasons for that.

First, because airlines have cut back or eliminated transcontinental flights, many passengers are having to complete their journey using connecting flights. Second, many people have traveled to Utah to visit its national parks and enjoy the outdoors.

“So even though operating at half of our normal volume is not a good thing,” Wyatt said, “it certainly could be worse.”

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Delta Air Lines announced that it will continue to block middle seats on aircraft through March 31 to help protect customers against COVID-19. It is the only major airline to have such an extension.

Bill Lentsch, Delta’s chief customer experience officer, said that step is to help customers feel safe, and responds to their desires for it.

“We are listening and will always take the appropriate steps to ensure our customers have complete confidence in their travel with us,” he said.