Holiday crowding revealed problems at new Salt Lake City International Airport

Tweaks are being considered to help with the longer walk as well as wheelchair service and baggage systems.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune A plane lands at Salt Lake City International Airport, Feb. 25, 2019.

The Christmas and New Year holidays were the first real test of how the first phase of the sparkling new $4.1 billion Salt Lake City International Airport could handle bigger crowds — because the pandemic had kept them small.

It didn’t do well, officials now concede. But they say they are working on fixes.

“There were some kinks, I’ll be the first to say,” Bill Wyatt, airport executive director, told the city Airport Advisory Board on Wednesday.

Disabled people had trouble getting wheelchair assistance. The baggage system sometimes didn’t work. Airport roads were congested with confused drivers. And more than anything, people complained about how much longer the walk is to the gates.

The walks indeed are longer. Wyatt explained why and discussed some tweaking the airport is considering to help.

“The reality is it’s a big, beautiful airport — emphasis on big and beautiful — and people are going to take some time getting used to this because it’s very different,” he said.

Wyatt noted that the old airport was built generally for smaller aircraft, so gates were spaced more closely, and the airport was compact and small. Now aircraft are bigger and require more room between gates in two concourses that are separated by a 990-foot tunnel (longer than three football fields).

In the old airport, Wyatt said he often could go from the parking lot to a gate in 8 minutes. “That just isn’t the case at a big-boy, world class airport like we have now,” he said. “It functions differently than the old airport in many, many ways.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, airport director Bill Wyatt, and Steve Sisneros of Southwest Airlines bump elbows after cutting a ribbon at gate B17 as the Salt Lake City International Airport celebrated the opening of its new Concourse B, with a Southwest flight to Oakland taking off on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

So the airport has been suggesting that people arrive two hours before flights to ensure they can make the longer trips to gates plus parking, ticketing and security.

Wyatt noted that with the longest possible trip, people must get from parking to the terminal, maybe to ticket agents, through security, down the terminal hall, turn into Concourse A, find a tunnel halfway down it, travel through the long tunnel to Concourse B, come out and walk maybe to a distant gate. Some flights temporarily are also using a hard-stand operation, where passengers are taken by shuttle to the tarmac where they walk up steps.

He said moving walkways cover about 70% of that distance, but it still takes time.

Wyatt said the airport is considering offering golf-cart-like shuttles in the current tunnel to help some people, because it figures it has space there that allows it.

An under-construction central tunnel is being built large enough to someday allow a planned train there when a third concourse is built 15-20 years from now — so it may also allow carts until then.

Wyat said not enough room exists in gate concourses for such shuttles. He added that the airport once offered carts years ago but stopped them because of a high number of lawsuits from people who were hit in crowded halls. Also, he said airlines did not want them in the new airport and did not want to help fund wider concourses needed to allow them.

He said the best option for people unable physically to handle longer walks is a wheelchair. But he said many disabled people had trouble getting a wheelchair during the holidays.

Wyatt said a contractor that offers wheelchair service failed to hire enough people to handle unexpectedly large crowds, when about 22,000 local passengers showed up at the airport on the Sunday after Christmas instead of the 7,000 or 8,000 people who had been arriving during the pandemic.

“The spike in passenger volume was so sharp and so sudden that the company that provides that service for the airlines simply wasn’t staffed up to handle that,” Wyatt said. “That’s a problem that time is going to resolve, because from this point forward, the increase in passenger volume is going to be sufficiently gradual so that they’ll be able to staff accordingly.”

The airport is also looking at changing how passengers request a wheelchair.

Now they must go to a ticket agent who calls for a wheelchair by radio. Wyatt said the airport is looking at creating some podiums in the terminal lobby where people may receive a wheelchair, and then be taken to ticketing and other locations. He says it should be more efficient.

Wyatt said the airport also had some failures with baggage handling with the bigger crowds, but blames that more on people not used to higher volume than on the new machinery itself.

“The machinery has performed very effectively. It’s still many of the service providers, ticket agents and others getting used to how this works,” he said.

Wyatt said the airport is working to resolve problems it finds and is preparing for expected bigger crowds. He said Delta Air Lines — which operates about 70% of the airport’s flights through its hub operation — expects to return to 85% of normal in spring or summer as more people are able to obtain vaccines.

“That’s just going to trigger a lot of leisure travel,” he said.

He expects business travel to remain slow as many businesses have become accustomed to holding online meetings. Also, he expects international travel to be slow to return.

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