Bill Wyatt: Why Delta’s new extended commitment to SLC Airport is a big deal

Airline’s connection to Salt Lake City is a giant boost to the economy.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Delta Air Lines signage at the baggage claim area in Salt Lake City International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022.

For many of the 26 million passengers who travel through Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) annually, the announcement earlier this year that the airport’s largest carrier, Delta Air Lines, had extended its lease agreement through at least 2044 may not have seemed newsworthy. It’s human nature to take for granted what runs well, and Delta runs extremely well.

You don’t have to dig deep to find examples of Delta’s excellence. In January 2023, it received a number-one-in-North America ranking by Cirium Aviation Analytics for both on-time departures and operational performance. SLC Airport can attribute its third-in-the-world ranking for on-time departures largely to Delta, which operates 70% of SLC’s 300-plus daily departures.

As such, it’s easy to see how some might consider Delta’s renewed commitment to SLC Airport as business as usual. But when you drill down to the significant role Delta plays in the airport’s vitality — and, in turn, how the airport contributes to the state’s economy — the benefits of Delta’s presence in Utah extend well beyond on-time departures.

I got my first hint of how invested Delta is in Salt Lake after joining the Salt Lake City Department of Airports (SLCDA) in 2017. At that time, we were on the cusp of securing funding to support the $4.1 billion replacement of the old terminal and concourses, and I knew that confirming and/or extending existing airline leases would be key in bolstering the Department of Airports’ bond rating. As SLC Airport’s largest carrier, those lease-extension conversations began first with Delta. Their answer was an unequivocable yes, which helped pave the way for the construction of our world-class airport.

Fast-forward to September 2021, one year after the opening of The New SLC, and post-pandemic recovery at SLC Airport was pacing ahead of all other U.S. airports. It was clear that to accommodate steadily growing passenger traffic, future expansion needed to happen now. Department of Airports staff got to work on completing preliminary architectural and engineering plans for Phase 4 of the airport’s redevelopment plan: construction of 16 gates on the east side of Concourse B. Funding these additional gates required another look at the airlines’ master lease agreements. So, in early 2022, lease conversations with Delta began again.

The Delta team not only indicated enthusiastic support for the accelerated expansion schedule, but also offered to extend their new lease to 2044, with the option to extend another 10 years to 2054. We knew then that Delta was a partner we could count on for not only the long haul, but indefinitely.

For passengers, Delta’s deepened commitment to SLC Airport means even more nonstop flights to more destinations. The $2.8 billion in lease payments Delta will make to the SLCDA between now and 2044 will allow us to move ahead with the accelerated build out of the 16 additional gates on Concourse B and, perhaps even more importantly, will help shelter the airport through any rough economic times that may lie ahead.

To understand how Delta’s investment in SLC Airport reverberates into the local economy, one needs to look no further than to the 41,000 people who relocated to Utah 2022. This influx of mostly young, well-educated transplants serves as critical fuel for the state’s vigorous economic engine. It’s easy, and correct, to assume that Utah’s incredible landscapes and employee-centered job market were their major draws. But ask staff recruiters what other factors lure out-of-state talent, and a major airport with nonstop flights tops the list.

On a larger scale, SLC Airport supported 124,407 jobs with an associated annual payroll of about $4.3 billion, according to an economic impact study completed in July 2020. The total annual economic impact of the airport — from expenditures for airport management, business tenants, capital investments, general aviation and commercial visitors — is $6.3 billion. In addition, the airport supported total annual spending of $7.2 billion and its total annual economic activity is estimated at $11.5 billion — or about 5% of Utah’s annual GDP.

Now, more than two years after debuting The New SLC, we could not be more optimistic about what the next 50 years holds for SLC International. No doubt there will be challenges along the way. But with strong partners like Delta, and the SLC Airport team, we are optimally positioned to support Utah’s continued prosperity.

Bill Wyatt

Bill Wyatt began serving has served as the executive director of the Salt Lake City Department of Airports (SLCDA) in November 2017. The SLCDA operates Salt Lake City International Airport and two nearby airports, South Valley Regional Airport and Tooele Valley Airport. Previously, Wyatt worked for 16 years as the executive director of the Port of Portland.