Salt Lake City’s new airport is The Tribune’s Utahn of the Year

One might reasonably quibble that the Utahn of any year should be a person, not an inanimate object. But, with so much coming, going and growing, we would make the case that such an airport is very much alive.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. The airport is The Tribune's Editorial Board's choice of Utahn of the Year.

It cost more than $5 billion — so far — and sees more than 70,000 customers pass through its doors and gates every day. Plus the more than 17,000 people who work there.

Every time it grows, its managers and the businesses they serve see — and fill — a need to make it even larger. Even though it was already the largest construction project in the history of Utah.

It links Salt Lake City and its environs with direct connections to more than 90 cities across the nation and to Europe, as far away as Germany.

It is a major economic engine for the state of Utah, generating more than $11 billion in financial impact for the area every year. It is about as environmentally responsible as such a facility can be, scores high points for efficiency, is a wonder to look at and is a big part of what gives Salt Lake City its claim to be the Crossroads of the West.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Passengers making their way through the airport during the holiday season.

It pays its own way, funded by fees paid by airlines, rental car companies, concessions and their customers and by federal grants. It’s officially a part of Salt Lake City government, but no local tax money goes to build or operate it.

It is the new Salt Lake City International Airport and, for all it does for the city, its economic health and its reputation as a city of the future, it is the 2023 Utahn of the Year.

One might reasonably quibble that the Utahn of any year should be a person, not an inanimate object. But, with so much coming, going and growing, we would make the case that such an airport is very much alive.

The old airport for this rapidly growing community was bursting at the seams. It saw more than 26 million passengers a year, in terminals designed for half as many people more than six decades before.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Construction at the airport in 2018.

Planning for a new facility began under then-Executive Director Maureen Riley. She retired in 2017 and was replaced by Bill Wyatt, lured out of retirement as the director of airports and ports in Portland, Oregon, and dropped into the middle of what was then envisioned as a $3.6 billion rebuild.

The first phase of the new airport opened in 2020. The most recent addition — 13 gates and 11 restaurants — was inaugurated on Oct. 31. Plans for still more expansion are on the drawing boards through 2027.

Building the new airport was kind of like building an airplane while in flight.

The old airport kept operating throughout construction. That complicated things, but it was a much better option than building an entirely new facility further away from the city. The airport’s proximity to downtown and the Wasatch Front ski resorts is a large part of its value.

Getting enough skilled construction workers, at a time when the rest of the community was growing rapidly and the state was also building a new prison nearby, added to the stress and the cost.

And Delta Air Lines, by far the airport’s largest tenant, kept thinking of new and bigger facilities it needed for its western U.S. hub operation.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Delta Air Lines planes.

Keeping Delta happy was crucial to the airport’s continued success. The carrier operates some 70% of the flights into and out of Salt Lake City.

In June, the carrier broke ground on a new 47,000-square-foot pilot training facility at the airport. It is the airline’s largest such facility outside of its Atlanta headquarters. Late last year, Delta also renewed its deal with the airport to operate as a hub here through at least 2044, with an additional 10-year option beyond that.

(Delta further cemented its links to the community when it also bought back its old naming rights deal for the downtown arena where the NBA’s Utah Jazz play.)

Airports are, by their nature, huge generators of greenhouse gases — something Salt Lake City’s west side already has in abundance.

But the new layout of the concourses and gates reduces taxi and idle times considerably, and all those little service vehicles you see scurrying around the aircraft are now mostly electric rather than diesel or gas. There are also 164 charging stations for electric vehicles and most shuttle buses and other vehicles now run on compressed natural gas.

All that, according to the airport, cuts annual greenhouse emissions by more than 19,000 metric tons. That’s the same as getting 3,900 cars off of Utah’s roads.

Many of the restaurants, bars and shops along the concourses are satellites of local businesses. They are expected to follow a rule, which Wyatt brought with him from Portland, that they will not charge more for a beer, a cheeseburger or a pair of earbuds at the airport than they do at their downtown facilities.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A collection of local restaurants in June.

Nothing is perfect, especially a project of this size. In hindsight, it should have been possible to rein in the cost a bit.

With little else to complain about, the most frequent comment about the airport is about the death march from the security checkpoint in the new terminal to the far reaches of Concourse B.

That’s something that should have been better anticipated, with more in the way of speedier people-moving belts. The problem will be ameliorated, somewhat, when a second A-to-B tunnel opens next October. Whenever Concourse C appears, it will come with a passenger tram.

Overall, the new SLC is the kind of well-planned public infrastructure project — a federal-local/public-private cooperative — that any community can be proud of. Unlike, one might argue, the next knee-jerk expansion of I-15.

It makes a terrific first impression on newcomers — skiers, national park visitors, jobseekers, business people looking for new locations.

It is The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utahn of the Year for 2023.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune)