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Work begins on new $1.8 billion Salt Lake airport; traveller fees, federal grants to foot costs

SALT LAKE CITY - Salt Lake City travellers in the next decade will catch expansive views of the Wasatch range, move faster through security and have more shops to choose from once crews finish work on a $1.8 billion airport, officials said Friday.

The update is overdue, they contend, on the 50-year-old facility that original builders did not anticipate would become a major airline hub.

"We need today a modern and efficient airport that can serve not only Salt Lake City but the entire intermountain region," Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker told about 150 people at a Friday ceremony.

Bulldozers have rolled onto a sandy lot southwest of the current facility as the reconstruction begins this week. The redesign trades in the current three terminals for a single broad one and is scheduled to open in two pieces: the first half in 2019, and the second in 2022. It incorporates three levels, with one designated exclusively for customs and international travel. Another will hold a lounge, conference and meeting space.

"For one thing, it will be a lot more efficient," said Maureen Riley, executive director, noting it will feature 72 gates instead of the current 86. Passengers at about a third of existing gates must step outside onto the asphalt and then climb into the plane. The new design will connect them directly, speeding the process, Riley said. "It's a far-reaching modernization," she said.

A planned expansive greeting area caters to families sending off or welcoming home Mormon missionaries from their two-year sojourns. It's unofficially labeled "the living room," intended to be more inviting and warm than typical waiting areas.

"Our airport is known for having lots of meeters and greeters," spokeswoman Barbara Gann said. "It's part of the cultural affinity" in Utah.

Seven airlines fly in and out of the airport, but Delta operates the bulk of flights after choosing the airport as a hub in the 1980s.

Airlines are footing a little under half the cost of the project, and Delta is covering about 80 per cent of that share, said Holden Shannon, senior vice-president of corporate real estate for Delta Airlines.

"This is a really big deal to have the entire airport be redone," Shannon said. Denver is the most recent city to see such renovations, and that happened about two decades ago, he said.

As the airport's main tenant, Delta advocated for more spots for travellers to sit down for a burger and Bloody Mary between connecting flights, as well as more shops.

Airport coffers and bonds backed by airline ticket sales pay for the bulk of the facility that is estimated to stretch the length of six Salt Lake City blocks. Rental car fees and federal grants also help cover the cost.

As work gets underway, officials warn that pickup and drop-off routes will shift.

"It's complicated to run an airport and build a new one at the same time," Gann said.

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