Officials at Salt Lake City International Airport are laying the groundwork for a sweeping transformation of the airfield's antiquated concourses and terminals that will create headaches for travelers in the short term but should eventually mean more flights and destinations for travelers.
They haven't developed detailed plans, timetables or cost estimates, but they say the bustling airport is running out of gates for the 15 airlines that serve Salt Lake. Many of those carriers, rejuvenated and fresh after years of turmoil dating back to 9/11, have informally asked airport executives to explore how more gates can be added to handle passenger numbers that have nearly doubled since the 1980s.
The execs are responding by saying that new gates and freestanding concourses could be operating in six or seven years. A new terminal to replace the existing three might come later.
The process of developing a strategy to enlarge the airport comes as Salt Lake voters in November prepare to elect a new mayor. The winner would have to be sold on any plan and be inclined to persuade the City Council to authorize spending, which would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars and perhaps beyond.
Candidate and Councilman Dave Buhler promises to make airport expansion a key goal if elected. "It's long overdue," he said.
Rival Ralph Becker said airport officials haven't outlined their ideas to him, but he doesn't question the need to improve the airport. It's "a critical piece of our economic present and future, and we need to make sure that the airport serves passengers, airlines and the city well."
The airlines are reluctant to say much about the expansion. But several representatives acknowledged having discussions with airport executives and welcoming the idea of additional gates.
Delta would "support the continued economic development of the airport," said spokeswoman Susan Elliott, whose carrier dominates traffic in and out of the nation's 14th-busiest airport.
"We believe that there is room" for JetBlue Airways to grow at the airport, "especially with [its] expansion plans," said spokesman Bryan Baldwin,
Although a master plan to guide the airport's growth has been in place since 1997, discussions about when to implement it have been on hold for several years. Since the terrorist attacks in 2001, airlines have struggled with a recession, bitter competition and wildly fluctuating oil prices that eventually drove Delta and others into bankruptcy.
"When I came in, the discussion had been pretty much tabled for a while," said Maureen Riley, who was named airport executive director in January. "And then right after I got here, Delta emerged from bankruptcy. I think that changed the whole landscape in the market."
Riley, a certified public accountant, came to Salt Lake with a background that includes managing the finances for a $2.5 billion capital improvement program at the airport in Orlando, Fla. The makeover included terminal and gate expansions, and airfield improvements. Earlier, she worked for a consulting company in San Francisco, where she was project manager on a capital expansion program for Salt Lake's airport.
In an interview, Riley said the expansion would be financed by bonds issued by the airport and repaid by airline landing fees and other sources. Federal funds might also be available and no taxpayer dollars would be necessary, though higher landing fees probably would result in higher ticket prices for flights.
Riley said repeatedly that no conclusions have been reached about what the expansion would look like.
Even so, she favors a few ideas. Riley wants to tear down the five existing concourses that extend like fingers from Terminals One and Two and the International Terminal. The concourses should go because they form U-shaped "pockets" that make it hard for aircraft nosing into and backing out of gates to move past each other efficiently, she said.
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