Director of Airports at Salt Lake City says we need each other to be successful
Bill Wyatt, Director of Airports, believes that in the future, airport hubs will become even more important than they have been before.
How did your career in the aviation industry begin?
I was the Chief of Staff to our state’s governor in Oregon, where the largest airport – Portland International Airport (PDX) – is owned and operated by a port authority, the Port of Portland. Because I specifically had a lot of interaction with the authority, I got to know the organisation and operation well. So, when my time in the governor’s office was done, I applied for the position of Executive Director at Port of Portland and did that job for almost 17 years.
I retired from that post in June 2017 and, only three days later, I got a call from a head-hunter about the Director of Airports job at Salt Lake City Corporation. I wasn’t really ready to retire, but I had done everything that I thought that I could do in Portland. It was time for something new and different, and here I am.
What is the most rewarding aspect of being Director of Airports?
I think, for me, hub airports are such an incredibly vital institution in the cities and communities they serve. They represent a connection both within the community, but also a connection between the community and other places in the country and the world. I got to see a lot of that, travelling extensively in my former post, and airports are that point of arrival and departure that represents the connection between people and place. I think it’s immensely rewarding to be part of that.
On the other hand, what is the most difficult?
Well, being an Airport Director is kind of like being a mayor of a small city. We own the airport, we operate the airport, but we’re not the only stakeholder. The framework for each country is a little bit different but here in the U.S., the framework for the operation and management of airports is heavily regulated by both the state and the federal government. Airport sponsors or owners don’t have as much control over the day-to-day operation of the airport as I think many other institutions do, and that can be very challenging.
I think we’re seeing right now, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, that we’re part of a much larger network. For example, how we are responding here in Salt Lake City to the outbreak and do things at our airport to help satisfy people that we are properly addressing the pandemic. We’re not able to do that if other airports aren’t doing something similar, or airlines for that matter, because you can only be as strong as your weakest link. If somebody gets on a plane in Salt Lake City and they go to Denver and have a different and less satisfying experience, they’re not going to get on the plane again in Salt Lake City and go to Denver. So, I think it’s a very unique challenge. One of the reasons why the airport associations tend to be as strong as they are is because we need each other to be successful.
Can you give us an overview of the three most exciting developments currently happening at Salt Lake City International Airport?
There is a very exciting development and it’s what brought me to Salt Lake City Airport. A nearly decade-long project which, when complete, will mean that everything that exists today that people would identify as the airport – I’m not talking about the runways and the taxiways, but all of the terminal buildings, the concourses, the parking facilities – will be completely gone and replaced by a brand new airport. The roadway will be new, we will have a new 3,600-stall parking garage, new rental car facilities, a new central utility plant, a brand new terminal building and all new concourses that will completely replace the existing airport.
Salt Lake City is a hub airport – we’re one of Delta’s fortress hubs. So, it’s a tremendous commitment on their part to this community. It’s hard to imagine another large fortress hub being rebuilt anywhere in the United States. The LaGuardia Airport (LGA) project in New York is a complete rebuild and though it’s not a fortress hub, it’s obviously important because it serves New York City. So, the chance to do that here is really pretty extraordinary.
The existing airport here in Salt Lake City looks like the fingers of your hand and it was a nice little design when it was created back in the 1960s, but it really doesn’t work at all as a hub, which requires anywhere between six and nine banks of flights a day. The design of the new airport is going to be very 21st century. There will be two parallel concourses connected by an underground tunnel so that planes can depart and arrive at will without any interference from other traffic, making this an extremely efficient airport.
Of course, because it’s new, the development will include all of the passenger amenities that we struggle with today. In 2019, we had a little over 26 million passengers, but the airport was designed to accommodate approximately 10 million. So, we just don’t have enough concessions, and it’s often overcrowded. We’ll be moving into a new space that is large enough to accommodate significantly larger passenger volumes. It’ll be a much better experience for passengers, whether you’re connecting, departing or arriving in Salt Lake City.
What is the biggest challenge that Salt Lake City International Airport is currently having to tackle?
Well, like everybody – whether you’re building an airport or running an airport – the COVID-19 virus has been a terrific challenge. We saw passenger volumes in February 2020 averaging at roughly 26,000 people at the front door every day, to late-March and early-April 2020 down to only 1,500.
Airports here in the United States depend on revenue entirely from their business models. Our tenants, airlines, concessionaires and rental car companies were all affected pretty equally by this tremendous decline in traffic. So, dealing with the immediate financial challenges of that was very significant.
At the same time, we employ pretty close to 2,000 construction workers a day on our construction project. Suddenly creating an environment in which they can do their work safely and not be infected on the job, or infect others, required some very quick action.
Our contractors have, in my opinion, done an excellent job of reinforcing the importance of hygiene, social distancing, wearing masks, taking temperatures every day as they enter the work site. Thus far, we have been relatively unaffected by the virus, as far as the construction project is concerned. That’s terrific, because, if we were to lose a significant part of our workforce, we’d have a difficult time opening, which we intend to do: The first phase is scheduled for 15 September 2020. That’s been a tremendous challenge, but, so far, we have been able to continue without a significant impact.
The virus is spiking here in Utah, as it is in many places around the country, and so an additional risk, I think, is that our workforce begins to get affected as a result of their exposure in areas outside the work site. Whether it’s at home, church or wherever it may be. So, we’re having to contend with that as well.
At this moment in time, what do you see as the biggest disruption to the aviation industry?
I think we’re at an inflection point where the industry is going to be very different in the future from the way it was four months ago and, in my career, I’ve lived through two of those moments. One was 9/11 and the other was the financial crisis of 2008. Each had a tremendous impact on the industry and the industry looked differently afterwards.
I don’t think we know quite yet what the industry is going to look like in six months or a year, but it’s pretty apparent that it will be different. It will be smaller, among other things. Many of us are learning how to use all of these various meeting and digital social media tools that allow us to interact without travelling. Even at the airport, we hold airline meetings now using Zoom or WebEx.
I think that, until there is either a vaccine or a treatment for the disease itself, we’re not likely to see as many older people in the airport because they are in the high-risk category, so that’ll be a factor. I think we don’t really know what the future of international travel is going to look like yet. I think there’s still a lot of work to be done to figure that out. So, we will find out, but I don’t think we know yet, other than that is going to be different.
In your opinion, how does the aviation industry need to adapt to secure its place in the future?
When you say the industry, I include in that the manufacturers – Airbus, Boeing and, no doubt there will be a major Chinese producer at some point in the future, as well. They are going to have to really put some thought into what the health requirements of flying are going to be in the future. I think most people don’t fully appreciate that, but I think there will be changes to the design of aircraft systems, for sure. I also suspect that the surviving airlines are probably going to use this as an opportunity to get rid of all of their old planes. Delta Airlines, with whom I’m familiar, has already gotten rid of their older 777s. They had a lot of McDonnell Douglas 80s and 90s. They’re getting rid of all those, buying new planes. They’ll be more fuel efficient.
We’ve kind of lived through roughly a 10-year period where the object of airlines was to cram as many people on a plane as possible. But now we don’t know how long are we going to have to live with social distancing, in which people are not comfortable sitting in the middle seat, for example. What does that mean? It means that flying could be more expensive. I think that’s a likely outgrowth of this, which will then limit the market to some expense. So, these are all things that are in play right now. I think the travel industry is trying to figure out how to absorb that. What does it really mean for us and how do we adapt going forward?
What does the future of the aviation industry look like to you?
Well, I think it’s going to be smaller for quite some time, because the carriers are going to have to find a point at which they can be financially successful. I do think fewer people are going to be travelling for quite some time until there is either an outright cure, like a vaccine or a treatment. There is a portion of the population that just is not going to be comfortable travelling. So, there will be fewer customers, if you want to look at it that way. It can open questions about airport hubs, and my guess is that hubs will probably become a little more important than they have been, to be sure.
I think that, in the airport world, I’m very happy that we are building a new airport, because we’re already paying attention to things like touchless bathroom fixtures, for example. So, you don’t have to push a plunger to get soap or turn a knob to get water. I think that there’s going to be a lot more of that kind of technology deployed in airports, and on airplanes for that matter.
But, if you substantially reduce the number of people who are going to be flying on an individual plane, you obviously change the revenue equation. So, I think it’s going to be more expensive to fly. I think there will be fewer people flying and that will be for some period of time to come.
On the international front, I really don’t know how that is going to go, because you have two things to think about. Countries are dealing with this virus in very different ways. New Zealand has eradicated the virus from their islands, but they’ve done so at the cost of not allowing people to visit other than New Zealand citizens and natives. If everybody did that, we’d have no international traffic whatsoever. So, I think we’ll have to see how comfortable people are flying internationally, and then how comfortable countries are being connected by air services to other countries whose approach to the virus may have been considerably different from their own.