Salt Lake City International Airport: Waiting for liftoff

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.

The expansion would take place inside the current boundaries of the airport and generally within the footprint of the existing terminals, though additional, free-standing concourses would be built to the north. No additional land or modifications to the airspace above the 7,678-acre airport would be needed. Riley said.

Replacing the old concourses and terminals would be new structures that parallel each other, a tricky process similar to how the San Jose International Airport in California is being modernized.

"I describe it as a massive kitchen remodel," said San Jose spokesman David Vossbrink. "The contractor's crews are tearing out the kitchen, but you're still living in it."

The number of concourses and additional gates hasn't been decided. But parallel concourses, a configuration used at hub airports such as Atlanta and Denver, would allow airplanes to taxi to and from gates in a speedier fashion by entering from one direction and then exiting in the opposite direction.

One concourse would be attached to a new terminal with three levels and a basement that would replace the existing terminals, according to a 2006 revision of the master plan. Passengers would reach other concourses by automated people-movers.

Whatever form the design takes, many passengers seem to be onboard.

"I just think they have to do it because of the market needs," said Pleasantville resident Dewey Diloma, who flew to Salt Lake from Phoenix on Friday. "You fly into other airports that are so much nicer. We want to build our economy, and the airport is part of that."

Behind the urgency to act is strong growth in passenger numbers. The airport was originally designed to handle 12 million passengers a year. Passenger numbers reached 22 million in 2005. They declined slightly last year, but came roaring back and are on track to rival or set another record, spokeswoman Barbara Gann said.

The airport also was never visualized as a hub, which it became in 1982, several years after Terminals One and Two were built. Hubs, or central transit points for transferring passengers, typically have more restaurants and retail stores than airports where passengers only start and end their journeys. In recent years, the number of smaller regional jets, which carry fewer passengers, has increased at the airport. At the same time, the number of larger jets, which carry more passengers, has fallen. In the equation, the total number of planes has increased, with each needing its own gate.

"When airports design their facilities, they really have to consider their passenger mix," said Liying Gu, director of economic affairs and research for Airports Council International, a trade group that represents U.S. airports.

Delta told airport executives to expect passenger traffic to grow by 3 to 5 percent for several years, a rate that could cause traveler numbers to double in as few as 14 years, Enormous population surges in Utah and other Western states during the past quarter-century, fueled by strong economies, have produced ever-growing numbers of people moving around the region. Airlines have moved rapidly in the past two years to tap the trend.

The growth is one reason Delta will launch the first trans-Atlantic route from Salt Lake City next year, a nonstop to Paris.

"If we want to continue to grow and meet the . . . increase in passenger traffic, we do need to accommodate the aircraft that land here, and they will need new gates," Riley said.