As events go, this one caught almost nobody's attention. On Aug. 1, Delta Air Lines began service to Durango, Colo., from its hub at Salt Lake City International Airport.
The occasion turned out to be a landmark. With that flight, operated for Delta by SkyWest Airlines, the No. 3 U.S. carrier now flies nonstop to 108 cities from Salt Lake, which is more than any other airline serving destinations from any other airport in the west.
More than United, the dominant airline in Denver, San Francisco or Los Angeles. More than US Airways in Phoenix or Las Vegas. More than Alaska Airlines at Seattle. More than any airline flying from any airport in the 11 states that comprise the western United States, according to OAG Worldwide Ltd., a multinational travel and transportation information company.
"It is a milestone in a series of steps that Delta has been taking that reflect the Salt Lake hub's importance to Delta's success," said airport director Roy Williams.
Williams said Western Airlines moved its hub to Salt Lake from Denver in 1982, five years before merging with Delta. At the time, Western was the country's oldest airline, with a strong West Coast presence out of Salt Lake.
"This is the culmination of that 25-year-old vision that Salt Lake can be as effective a passenger hub as Denver is," Williams said.
The hub's importance to both Delta and Utah is growing, even as the airline attempts to work its way out of bankruptcy. Delta has been paying more attention to international flying at the same time it has been shrinking its domestic capacity. More than 20 percent of the cities Delta serves from Salt Lake were added since September, when it filed for bankruptcy.
Since last fall, Delta has added routes to Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; Cleveland; Memphis and Nashville, Tenn; Miami; Hartford, Conn.; Milwaukee; LaGuardia Airport in New York; Canada and several Mexican resort areas.
More destinations are coming. Delta has asked the Department of Transportation for permission to pick up the route to Mexico City abandoned last year by AeroMexico. It wants to fly to Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city. And it's exploring nonstop service to Europe. Last week, a Delta executive said the airline will fly to London or Paris next summer, if Salt Lake provides financial help.
What's more, said Glen Hauenstein, Delta's executive vice president for network and revenue management, the growth in Salt Lake will proceed at the expense of Denver International Airport, the biggest airport in the interior West.
"We are adding destinations at a much more rapid clip than United [in Denver]. I would expect that to continue in perpetuity, as far as I can see. We haven't found the bottom of the barrel of cities we can serve," Hauenstein said.
United Airlines officials were unavailable for comment. They cited a heavy volume of telephone calls after British officials announced they had foiled a plot to blow up airliners using explosives smuggled in carry-on luggage.
Geography explains most of Salt Lake's growth. Because Denver is farther east, it can't tap the north-south traffic up and down the West Coast as easily. Similarly, Los Angeles and other coastal airports are distant from many interior-West cities. Only Salt Lake's airport can send airplanes in all directions on short hops.
"Salt Lake has a very unique geography that is almost omnidirectional. I think we have more opportunities to create unique destinations" from Salt Lake than do Delta's competitors at Denver and other airports, Hauenstein said.
Delta provides more than 71 percent of the airplane seats that fly into Salt Lake. The airline has raised its fares several times this year to offset high fuel prices. With so much control of the market, the airline is often accused of charging fares that are higher than they would be if Salt Lake consumers had more travel options. In fact, Delta's highest coach-class fares in July were above $500 for the first time.
Although some prices might be higher, industry analysts say that airline service in Utah's capital would be limited if it didn't have Delta's hub. Milwaukee, which has more residents than Salt Lake, has 50 destinations. Raleigh, N.C., has 37. Providence, R.I., has 27.
"To be honest, Salt Lake would probably have nonstop service to a maximum of 40 destinations," said airline analyst Michael Boyd, president of The Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo.
Utah's economy probably would not be as robust without Delta. Together with its ASA and SkyWest partners, Delta is directly and indirectly responsible for 13,000 jobs in the state. They provide $2.5 billion in annual economic benefit, according to Delta.
"This is not just about people flying or shipping cargo," said John Heimlich, chief economist of the Air Transport Association. "This is to the benefit of hotels, restaurants, convention centers, travel and tourism. It's exactly why airports compete for more service."
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