The first time I emerged from a jetway into the new Salt Lake International Airport, I experienced something I can only describe as backward Deja vu. (Vuja day?) Where was I? It took a disoriented second to realize the airport I had known since I took my first-ever flight way back in high school was gone and that I had indeed arrived in SLC.
The shiny new airport that greeted my arrival that day, and all of us since, was decades in the making and is still in the making. The original SLC airport was built in the ’60s and like many (most, actually) airports around the country was well beyond its capacity and lifespan. Thanks to what airport executive director Bill Wyatt called “an extraordinary occasion of public works prescience,” Salt Lake is one of the few cities in the country to launch a new airport.
“I am in awe of the vision that was required to make this happen,” he says. “There was a sustained will to take all of these small incremental steps to keep moving forward.” Wyatt is looking at the airport’s 1996 master plan on his desk as he says this. On the cover is a rendering of the new airport that is essentially the same design as what was built. “I look at this rendering from 1996 and think about all the changes that have happened in aviation since then,” he says. “I am amazed.”
For example, Wyatt points to a moment well before the official groundbreaking in 2014. 10 years earlier, in 2004, planners had realized that they needed to get rolling on a backbone step—the digging of the mid-concourse tunnel that would connect the terminals of the future.
“The staff at that time went to the FAA for $8 million and built this tunnel and buried it before serious work even began in 2011,” Wyatt says. “We’re literally building on the bones of the old airport, and if that tunnel hadn’t been in place we couldn’t have gone forward.”
If it sounds like Wyatt has a savant level of appreciation for the nitty gritty details of the airport project, it’s because, as of 2017, he was in the hot seat to see it through. He’d retired after 16 years as the Executive Director of the Portland Airport Authority and saw firsthand how difficult managing modern aviation in an aging facility could be. He came out of retirement just for the chance to oversee the construction of a brand new airport and moved to Salt Lake in 2017.
“The job was very compelling,” he says. “This project had been in the works for 20 years and was finally happening. It is almost unheard of in the airport business. This was something that rarely happens in the United States.”
Although wheels were well in motion when Wyatt joined the project, it wasn’t as if he got to just kick back and watch it happen. For one thing, he quickly realized that the original design’s scale and size were far too small. Among the first words he said on the job were “we have to make it bigger.”
After all, the Wasatch Front’s population had grown and was still growing, the planes were bigger and the traffic through the airport was increasing dramatically every year. So, yeah. They were, as the famous line from Jaws goes, “going to need a bigger boat.”
“This is what a modern airport has to be,” he says. “We need to fly bigger planes at a faster rate. It cuts down on everything from schedule disruptions to emissions if planes can get in and get out efficiently.”
Then, of course, came COVID and a near standstill for the airline industry. And while the challenge of pushing to keep building safely wasn’t nothing, Wyatt says the slowdown was actually a benefit.
“Our opening day was Sept. 20, 2020,” he says. “Remember, at that point, there was no optimism about vaccines and the COVID rate was very high. It was a dark period. On a regular day at the airport, we’d see about 30,000 people at the front door, plus 15,000 airline and airport workers. We were actually very fortunate to open at a lower capacity, which gave more breathing room to work through the many logistical problems we knew we’d encounter.”
Now as work continues on the second terminal, Wyatt says he is glad that he came out of retirement to be part of history. “This airport is going to have a decades-long impact on the Wasatch Front and we’re building it to last.”
The Long Walk
The chief complaint about the new airport is the long slog to Terminal B, which will be shortened once the project is complete. But Wyatt shrugs off the complaints knowing that it takes time for people to become accustomed to a new airport. And, he asks, “have you ever flown out of JFK?”
“Now that’s a long walk,” he chuckles. “Salt Lake is nothing like that.”