SALT LAKE CITY — The new Salt Lake City administration is shutting down all smoking rooms at Utah's largest airport.
The decision is a complete turnaround from the stance former Mayor Ralph Becker's administration took on the issue, with smoking rooms being included in the Salt Lake City International Airport's $1.8 billion terminal redevelopment plans.
But Mayor Jackie Biskupski plans to phase out the airport's five smoking rooms by the end of the year.
“This is first and foremost an issue of public health, both for travelers and our airport employees, but it is also an issue of space concerns,” Biskupski said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “The current airport terminal is also beyond capacity, and every foot of available space should be used to the best advantage of the traveling public.”
The smoking room in Concourse D is scheduled to close July 5. The other four will be phased out over the next six months, with the final smoking room shutting down the week of Dec. 19. The city's terminal redevelopment plans have also been changed to no longer include the lounges.
Closing the rooms will free up more than 1,200 square feet for other purposes, city officials said, including potential space for retail, charging stations and passenger seating.
“We have thoroughly studied the issue of closing the smoking rooms,” said Maureen Riley, the airport's executive director. “While we expect a mild change in routine for some using the airport, we anticipate no major impact in passenger movement or convenience in taking this step.”
The previous administration argued to keep the lounges open to accommodate those who might otherwise smoke in improper areas, as well as to prevent crowding in screening lines as people exit and re-enter security checkpoints to smoke outside.
Jacob Kelly, who used one of the smoking rooms Tuesday while waiting for his flight to Denver, said the change will be an inconvenience.
"It's unfortunate for smokers," Kelly said. "You have to wait so long (to pass security) that you can't go outside when you want to smoke."
Kelly, 24, said he understands the airport wants to reduce smoking, but he wishes the status of smoking rooms weren't reduced to an all-or-none decision.
"They should come up with an alternative (on) how it could be more convenient for smokers," he said, but added wryly, "I'm not an engineer. Maybe the FAA could come up with something."
Paul Robinson, who flies regularly for business, also used one of the lounges Tuesday. He said he wasn't surprised by the decision to remove them.
"It's disappointing, but I knew it was coming," he said.
The rooms serve a practical purpose for smokers, according to Robinson, who echoed Kelly's sentiment that going through airport security multiple times is a hassle.
"(The room) is convenient because it keeps me from going in and out," Robinson said. "I'd rather not do that."
Some fliers who use the rooms said they don't mind the change.
"A lot of places (where) I work don't allow smoking," said Chris Johnson, who works in construction. "It doesn't bother me. If worst comes to worst and I need to go outside, I can."
One airport worker who declined to give his name said employees there will be most affected by the change. It will be an added stress for employees to have to leave the terminals, the man said.
"It's going to be an adjustment," he said.
Biskupski's decision comes after the demise of a bill proposed during this year's legislative session that would have required the airport to close its lounges. Salt Lake leaders and health officials supported the bill, but it stalled in the Senate.
"Having been involved in this issue since last summer, I see this as a step forward for our airport and our state,” said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. “I would have liked the Legislature to support this, but the timing is right, and this is a positive and appropriate health move for our traveling public.”
Over the past several years, health leaders have urged Salt Lake City leaders to consider closing airport smoking rooms. They argued the smoking rooms made the city's airport an outlier, since 27 of the 35 busiest U.S. airports are smoke-free. Nationwide, more than 600 airports are smoke-free.
"We're thrilled that it's finally happening," said Brook Carlisle, governmental relations director for the American Cancer Society. "It's been years in the making. It's time that the Salt Lake City airport come in line with the rest of the other major airports in the country."
Carlisle has previously said her group would be interested in continuing to support a bill that would require the airport to remain smoke-free.
"Technically, a new administration could put smoking rooms back in 10 years," she noted.
However, Carlisle said Tuesday she wasn't sure if that's something her group will be lobbying for during next year's session.
"I'm no airport building expert, but I think once the new airport is constructed, it probably wouldn't be feasible to put them in," she said.
The first phase of the project is slated to be completed in 2020.
City officials said the airport will immediately begin an outreach campaign to inform the public about the closures, as well as offer a free smoking cessation program for airport employees.
Airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said people wishing to smoke at the airport will still be able to do so outside the terminals, as long as they are 25 feet from entrances, in accordance with the Utah Indoor Clean Air Act.
Following the July 5 closure of the smoking lounge in Concourse D, the smoking room in Concourse A will close the week of Aug. 15; Concourse B, the week of Sept. 26; Concourse E, the week of Nov. 7; and Concourse C, the week of Dec. 19.
Contributing: Jasen Lee
Twitter: KatieMcKellar1, benlockhartnews