Crews are razing the old Salt Lake City International Airport to make way for the new

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews work on the demolition of the old parking garage at the Salt Lake International Airport, to make way for the expansion of the new terminals, on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020.

Not many weeks ago, the International Terminal at Salt Lake City International Airport was still a shiny white building with gleaming floors and windows. Now it’s a twisted pile of rubble.

Half of the airport’s old parking garage is also torn down. The rest of the former airport is fenced off as crews remove hazardous waste or salvageable material. Most of that old airport will vanish by spring, and all of it will by summer, to make way for more expansion of the new $4.1 billion airport.

While growing piles of rubble make the old airport look as devastated as much of the pandemic-weary world may feel, officials say it actually is evidence of a small silver lining from COVID-19.

As the pandemic greatly slowed air traffic, that allowed the airport to accelerate demolition of old facilities. That means officials now plan to complete the airport rebuild two years early, and at possible savings of as much as $300 million.

Airport Project Manager Mike Williams said to handle what had been the airport’s 26 million passengers a year, the original plans called for demolishing the old airport facilities in phases and to continue to use portions of them until ongoing expansion could replace them.

But when the pandemic reduced passenger traffic by 65% last spring, “The decision was made to just tighten up, to squeeze everybody into the new facility,” Williams said.

And for any flights that new gate concourses cannot handle, the airport began a hardstand operation, “which is an area where you can park planes and then bus [passengers] to them,” Williams said.

“That gives us enough capacity, for at least the near term, so that we can [demolish] the entire airport at one time,” he added. “It’ll save us about two years in the overall timeline. ... It can save up to $300 million.”

Williams, during a tour of demolition for the news media, added that COVID-19 “has hurt a lot of other areas, but its helped construction and made it easier to build phase two.”

It also shows some of the complicated calculations that Salt Lake City officials faced as they build a new airport partially on top of the old one without disrupting operations.

The first phase of the new airport opened on Sept. 15, with a new terminal, one new gate concourse and a new parking garage. For about a month, many of the gates in the old airport were still used — with a long walk — until a second new gate concourse opened on Oct. 27.

Williams said the old International Terminal quickly came down. Where it stood, crews have begun construction on what eventually will be the main central tunnel between the airport’s two new gate concourses. They now are connected by another smaller tunnel at the north end of those concourses.

The airport is also moving quickly to demolish the old parking garage because “It stands on the footprint of the extension of Concourse A,” the gates used by Delta Air Lines for its hub operation.

The two new parallel concourses are only about half as long now as they will be eventually after full expansion. Williams said what had been the Delta gates in the old airport must be torn down to make way for expansion of the new Concourse B used by airlines besides Delta.

Many of the other older facilities being torn down will make way for new taxiways and other operations.

The interior of the old airport now looks like a ghost town. “It was a little sad at first,” Williams said, to see parts of a familiar facility first built in 1960 being torn up and removed. “It belongs to the past now. It’s just a construction site.”

A Frontier Airlines gate still has an electronic sign operating that said its last flight to Austin was on time. Some drinks left by the final passengers there still sit in cup holders in chairs that have yet to be removed. Scaffolding is everywhere to allow crews to remove lights and other potentially harmful or salvageable material.

Demolition workers said their job was a bit eerie at first as music kept playing and escalators still moved — and it seemed a bit like an apocalypse had emptied the building of all people.

Williams said the airport is trying to recycle what it can.

“The contractor is recycling a whole lot of the material,” he said. “So, as they demolish the buildings, they sort out all of the rebar and all of the things that can be recycled. The concrete is mostly all crushed. So everything that can be reused is reused.”