November 1, 2012

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Article

Ready for Takeoff

Salt Lake City International Airport is Set for an Upgrade

Gaylen Webb

November 1, 2012


As a frequent business flier, Brandon Zaugg of West Haven, Utah, knows what to expect at busy airports. He’s been in and out of Chicago O’Hare, JFK, Atlanta and LAX frequently, so he knows them like the back of his hand. But, as busy as those airports are, they don’t compare to the chaotic, elbow-to-elbow frenzy he experiences regularly at Salt Lake City International Airport.

“It gets really bad when you are down toward the end of the C and D Concourses. The gates are so close together and the intercoms compete with each other. Hearing the correct boarding instructions can get a little dicey,” he says. “And finding an outlet for your laptop or a seat near your gate—forget it!”

During peak hours, you can also forget about grabbing a quick bite to eat or a short bathroom break. The lines can be uncomfortably long at the concessions and the restrooms.

Kevin Robins, director of engineering for the Salt Lake City Department of Airports, feels the passenger pain. “At peak periods during the day, we overstress our facilities and don’t provide the level of service our customers deserve,” he says.

As a Delta Air Lines hub, the airport services more than 21 million passengers annually. Approximately every 90 seconds a plane arrives or departs. Sixty planes may arrive in an hour and they will all want to leave in an hour, says Robins. “The airport can be so crowded that it doesn’t allow passengers to be served properly between flights.”

From the Ground Up
But all of that is about to change. The nation’s best-rated airport for domestic on-time performance is about to undergo a $1.8 billion terminal redevelopment that will begin in 2013 and continue through 2025. The Salt Lake City Department of Airports will also spend about $400 million more during the same period on routine and ongoing airport improvement projects unrelated to the terminal redevelopment program (TRP).

The result will be an efficient hub operation that also serves as a gateway to Salt Lake City and the state.

Under the TRP, most of the airport facilities will be demolished and rebuilt in phases through 2025. When finished, the new airport will feature an apron for planes to park around the concourses; one terminal with a South Concourse West, a South Concourse East, and B, C and D Concourses; and a new parking garage.

The TRP will address seismic risk, provide right-sized facilities, solve operational problems like airfield congestion, improve customer service, accommodate growth and maintain the airport’s competitive cost—all in a phased implementation plan that spans the next 12 years, says Maureen Riley, executive director of the Salt Lake City Department of Airports.

From a user perspective, the TRP should improve nearly every aspect of the customer experience, including all the amenities one might expect from a hub operation: gates equipped to accommodate any flight, modern, roomy facilities and more retail concessions.

Robins says Terminal 1, with its A and B Concourses, is more than 50 years old. The central plant is also 50 years old. Concourses C and D are 27 years old and the parking garage is 20 years old. The aging facilities have outlived their useful lives—thus the decision to rebuild rather than renovate, even though the latter would be less expensive. Furthermore, Riley says the gate configuration does not easily accommodate an airline hub operation and begs for a redesign.

“When finished, the new airport will be similar in its conceptual approach to Atlanta Hartsfield and Denver International, with one terminal building connected to linear concourses. The new configuration is recognized as the optimal design for an airline hub operation,” Riley explains.

Since all of the air carriers will eventually connect to one terminal, the completed TRP many mean slightly longer walking distances for some travelers. To reduce the stress, Robins says the airport plans to put in more passenger-friendly moving walkways.

Project Blueprint
Construction will begin with the relocation of the rental car facilities to an unoccupied area west of the terminals. Moving the rental car facilities will allow the airport to open up the site and create a construction zone. After the rental cars are relocated, terminal construction will begin, followed a year later by a new parking garage. Riley says the new terminal and garage are scheduled to open simultaneously in about 2018 or 2019. Later phases of the plan include the demolition of existing facilities and renovation or rebuilding of Concourses B, C and D.

Considering the current facility’s overstressed nature and the lengthy build out of the TRP, will the construction add to the frenzy and make traveler experiences even less friendly? Riley doesn’t think so. She says most of the construction will be separated from the current passenger experience.

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