Next time you go to Salt Lake International Airport, the news story began, take a good look around. “Twenty years from now, you won’t recognize it.”
That could have been written today, given how construction crews have begun turning dirt for a $1.8 billion rebuilding project. But no, it was written in this newspaper in 1996.
That’s not quite 20 years ago but, while there is still time for the heavy equipment to make things unrecognizable by 2016, the truth is things look pretty much the same today as they did back then.
Which would have been a surprise to anyone who read that story in 1996.
Airports have been called everything from “the most important main street in any town” to symbols of the endless hassles of modern travel.
We always have loved to hate the flying experience. Even as far back as 1946, Fortune Magazine lamented how a booming air industry — a surprise to many at the time — had led to “jammed air facilities from the reservation telephones on through the whole system and into the air.”
Chicago’s terminal was full of “crying babies, the continuous raucous, unintelligible squawk of the loudspeaker, the constant push and jostle of new arrivals .”
“Almost all U.S. airports are utterly barren of things to do,” Fortune said. “The dirty little lunch counters are always choked with permanent sitters staring at their indigestible food. The traveler consigned to hours of tedious waiting can only clear a spot on the floor and sit on his baggage and, while over-smoking, drearily contemplate his sins.”
Things have changed since then, of course. Smoking no longer is permitted.
Salt Lake’s expansion project is a testament to the difficulty of predicting the future, or perhaps it is a cautionary tale for bureaucrats everywhere.
The truth is, 20 years ago the folks in charge envisioned a different 2014. But as our predecessors in 1946 learned, the air industry is fickle.
In 1996, the talk was of 36 million yearly passengers in Salt Lake City by 2010. That didn’t seem crazy at the time. In 1991, 12 million people used Salt Lake’s airport. By 1995, that had grown to about 19 million — five straight years of double-digit percentage increases.
But we never got there. Airport officials say traffic peaked at about 22 million, then fell to about 20 million, where it remains today.
What happened? Simply put, a lot of things no one could have predicted.
As Department of Airports executive director Maureen Riley noted at the recent groundbreaking, all the talk in 1996 ended when the airlines declined to support expansion. They restarted in 2001, but ended abruptly, as did a lot of things, when terrorists struck on 9/11.
A few years later they stalled again because of economic troubles within the industry. Finally, in 2009, the process began again, leading eventually to today’s project, which is to replace four concourses and three terminals with one. The number of gates will drop from 86 to 72, which Barbara Gann, airport public relations and marketing director, said would accommodate the same number of flights through efficiencies.
In 1996, the plan was to have 100 gates by now, with two parallel concourses joined by an underground train. We may still get there some day, but only if boom times return.
But just ask Pittsburgh what can happen if a hub disappears. Nothing says “depressed economy” quite like a large, mostly empty airport, no matter what the real numbers might say.
Back in ’46, Fortune lamented how, “Cities have been afraid to look ahead in building airports .”
That’s not without good reason, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. Airlines (and their passengers, of course) fund most of these projects, not taxpayers. That tends to tie them to actual need, which is a good thing.
We should be glad for the slow pace of change in this case. It is now, however, safe to say that people at Salt Lake’s airport should look around carefully, because 20 years from now they really, truly won’t recognize the place. Whether air travel itself improves, however, remains to be seen.