SALT LAKE CITY — Once the $3 billion Salt Lake City International Airport project is completed around 2025 and the existing facility is demolished, it may end up being too small within just five years.
"If the growth we're experiencing now continues, we have to potentially plan," Kevin Robins, engineering director for the city's Department of Airports, told the Salt Lake City Airport Advisory Board Wednesday.
That may mean considering a third and potentially a fourth concourse in addition to the new south and north concourses expected to open in August 2020, he said, with more gates already scheduled for completion in late 2024.
Robins came up with the five-year estimate after being asked by a board member, state Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, how many years of growth would be taken care of by building a new airport.
Mike Williams, program director for the airport project, said there are 15 gates planned for the north concourse that aren't part of the current construction schedule but could serve as "kind of a relief valve" if necessary.
Even with those extra gates, though, Robins said it could be just five years before the city would have to expand the airport to accommodate the growth.
Robins said after the meeting that the current airport project that eventually will replace the current concourses and other buildings was planned based on the number of passengers increasing an average of 1.5 percent annually.
But with more than a million additional passengers passing through the airport from January 2016 to January 2017 — an increase of nearly 5.3 percent — he said there's already a push to add even more gates.
"Right now, we happen to be in a very robust cycle with the airlines. They're making money on all their flights. The economy is good. People are flying, so they're trying to put as many airplanes in as possible," Robins said.
"We also recognize at some point, it's going to slow down," he added.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who attended the meeting, also said the current growth in passenger traffic at the airport can't be counted to continue.
"We're all expecting another downturn in the economy over the next couple of years. What does that do? So it's hard to predict, but we're paying attention. And then we'll see," the mayor said.
She said with "all the unpredictable activity happening in the national setting," a reference to the new administration of President Donald Trump, "there is real cause for pause right now."
International travel bookings reportedly declined after Trump banned travel from countries deemed a national security threat. His January ban, revised after being struck down in federal court, was set to take effect Thursday. A judge in Hawaii, however, put the ban on hold after hearing arguments that the executive order discriminates on the basis of nationality.
According to ForwardKeys, a company that tracks travel, international travel bookings to the United States were down 6.5 percent in February compared to a year ago.
The number of passengers on international flights at the Salt Lake airport is up more than 39 percent from January 2016 to 2017 with several nonstop international flights.
Robins said Salt Lake is "bucking" the downturn in international passengers reported elsewhere.
"Overall, the trend is probably going to slow, but where we're positioned in the market from Europe coming and visiting our national parks and everything that we have in Utah, I don't know that we're going to see the same slowing," he said.9 comments on this story
So far, about $250 million has been spent on the airport project, according to Williams. The price tag went up about $350 million in December largely because of higher than anticipated costs due to a "hot" construction market.
Williams said with the design process just getting underway for the north concourse, the $737 million estimated cost for that piece of the airport project is expected to go up.
About $1 billion in bonds were recently sold for the project, which is being funded through airport revenues such as parking, car rental and airline fees, not taxpayer dollars.