February 9, 2015

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Forty under 40

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Flight Plan

Utah Quite Possibly has the Best Airport in the Country

By Natalie Gochnour

February 9, 2015

One of my favorite signs in Utah is the electronic sign along I-80 just east of the airport that notifies drivers that downtown Salt Lake City is a mere five minutes away. It is a powerful reminder of the convenience of the Salt Lake City International Airport and the extraordinary asset it is to the Utah economy.

I have served on the Airport Board for five years and last month finished my service as chair. It has been a phenomenal experience and I want to share some of what I learned. Stats are important, and I’m going to share a few, but I want to share something more personal. I want to impart my feelings as I’ve rubbed shoulders with the professional staff, toured the facilities, poured over the plans for the rebuild and reviewed the financial statements. There is a culture of professionalism, competency and fiscal strength at the airport that serves this community extremely well.

Economic Hub

In a very real way, airports are like a major city with roads and transit, parking, taxis, businesses, a police force and lots of people. They are large, complex and highly specialized. Airports have their own language, are beholden to higher powers (like the Federal Aviation Administration) and value safety like a parent loves a child. They serve the community every day of the year with no holidays or spring breaks. They operate in all sorts of weather, accommodate all sorts of emergencies and process tremendous volume.

In 2014 the Salt Lake City International Airport served over 21 million passengers. It is the front door to our state and incredibly important to our economy and way of life.

Last year the Salt Lake City Department of Airports embarked on a multi-year, $1.8 billion rebuild of the airport. We can all take comfort that they do so from a position of financial strength. The airport currently has no debt and over $400 million of cash on hand. There will be no tax increase to pay for our new state-of-the-art terminal. The funding will come primarily from savings, gate and rental car fees, concession revenue and grants.

Behind the Scenes

So much of what goes on at the airport is mostly invisible to the flying public. An air traffic controller told me he thinks our airspace is more complicated than that of Chicago O’Hare. He said the mountains on both sides, birds from Great Salt Lake, winter weather, the flight path of the South Valley Regional Airport and Hill Air Force Base make our airspace quite complex and technically challenging to controllers.

The Salt Lake City International Airport also has one of the foremost experts in the country on wildlife control. Every day, airfield experts use sound, nets, cages, diversion techniques and other methods to keep birds away from the runways—a difficult task with the Great Salt Lake ecosystem next door. Just think of the “Miracle on the Hudson” and you’ll remember why bird strikes are a major safety issue at airports. We have a team of pros working on our behalf.

Snow, ice and frost cause many challenges at an airport. The Salt Lake City International Airport is equipped with modern de-icing facilities to make sure planes take off safely.

Just imagine the complexity and high stakes of de-icing dozens of aircraft, all of different sizes, in the middle of a snowstorm with poor visibility, and getting them back to the runway before the chemicals lose their effect. And they have to get it right every single time. The same holds true for the runway snow removal crews.

Global Gateway

We all recognize our airport as a Delta hub, but do we really appreciate what this means? We have 312 daily departures to 88 non-stop destinations. That is impressive service for a region of our population size. And we have nine non-stop international destinations: Calgary, Cancun, Guadalajara, Los Cabos, Mexico City, Paris, Puerto Vallarta and Vancouver. In May 2015 Delta will add non-stop service to Amsterdam, providing a long-awaited second direct linkage to Europe.

Delta, along with its partner Skywest, has 3,800 employees at the Salt Lake Airport. And the Delta Air Lines reservation center employs an additional 620 people. Delta is also the official airline of the Utah Jazz and the U.S. Ski Team, U.S. Snowboarding and U.S. Free Skiing and is a proud sponsor of Brigham Young University athletics (don’t hold that against them!). Less well publicized is Delta’s support locally for the American Cancer Society, Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Children’s Miracle Network and United Way. It also recently made a $6 million donation to Salt Lake’s new performing arts theater. Thank you Delta.

As a lifelong Salt Laker, I’ve always appreciated the convenience, great connectivity and economic contribution of our international airport. The Terminal Redevelopment Program will only make it better. Next time you fly think of all the people working to make our airport great. It could just be the best airport in the country.

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.

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