Brief History of the Salt Lake City Airport

Flying High at the Airport  by MBomis

In 1968, the Salt Lake Municipal Airport was renamed the “Salt Lake City International Airport.” The new name was symbolic of its ever-expanding scope.

Just as the Chamber helped give birth to Salt Lake’s first cinder airfield, it continued to nurture its growth to maturity in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. For example, from 1975 to 1980 the airport expanded to 7,500 acres. In 1978, the airport’s annual payroll was $25 million.

The airport’s growth demanded new facilities and the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce was at the forefront of finding funds for them. For example, the Chamber supported a successful 1979 bond election that provided $42 million to upgrade the airport. The bond help modernize the main terminal building to allow Jetway connections directly from the concourse to planes. Previously, passengers had to brave the outside weather to board planes. It also connected the main terminal to the Western Airlines terminal, built in 1978, and improved roads including a connection to Interstate 80.

The expansion project was said to have been the biggest and costliest single capital improvement of a city-operated facility in Salt Lake’s history.

The Chamber was also very active with the Utah Air Travel Commission. Along with representatives from the State of Utah and Salt Lake City government, the Chamber appointed five members to the panel to help improve airline service.

Before airline deregulation, communities competed in an exhaustive procedure to attract additional airlines and service to airports. The Civil Aeronautics Board and Federal Aviation Administration doled out perks at meetings in Washington, D.C., where communities and airlines could make a case for increased service. Early on, Salt Lake City had “average service” in the number of flights and connections provided by Western Airlines, United Airlines, and Frontier Airlines. Every flight east would stop at either Denver’s Stapleton Airport or Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

“We had too few flights and too many flights that necessitated a connection,” Fred Ball, the Chamber’s top executive, said of the time.

Z. (Bud) Kastler of Mountain Fuel Supply was the Chamber representative on the Air Travel Commission who helped push for more transcontinental carriers in the Salt Lake market. Under Kastler’s leadership, several cases for expansion were taken to Washington. American Airlines eventually entered the market, but did not plan any westbound service. The airline flew one flight to Dallas and three to Chicago. United increased service because of new competition, but still only flew to San Francisco, Denver, and Chicago on direct non-stops. No carriers connected directly to major Eastern airports.

Even with the additional flights and the addition of Eastern, TWA, and Texas International Airlines, with its cheap “peanuts fares,” the commission wanted better service. The use of “hub” locations by airlines was just developing. Local officials met with Larry Lee, a native Utahn and top executive with Western Airlines, about creating a Western hub at Salt Lake City. By February 1982, the deal was done.

“Larry Lee called a press conference to announce the approval and that one occasion was the most significant occurrence in the history of air travel service in the state of Utah. Many new direct, non-stop flights were added,” Ball wrote.

Not all, including many in the airline industry, first saw it that way. The Wall Street Journal carried the headline “Is Salt Lake City a Mistake?” after the announcement. But within a few years, no one was questioning the move. Western was flying high on record profits and passenger numbers and flights at Salt Lake International reached all-time highs. By 1983, Salt Lake International moved from twenty-sixth place among the nation’s airports for number of connections to thirteenth.

By 1984, a Western Airlines official told the Chamber’s board of governors that Western employed 2,000 at its Salt Lake operations and had a monthly payroll of $4 million. Then, the hub serviced 22 percent of Western passengers. In 1987, Western merged with Delta Airlines and the Salt Lake hub operations took on even greater significance. In 2002, the hub was Delta’s third largest, with 125 daily scheduled flights. In all, about 726 flights of all aircraft take off from the airport each day.

Growth and an unending construction schedule seem to be the norm at the airport into the 21st Century. In 2001, the airport served 18.8 million passengers, and was ranked the 24th busiest airport in the nation and 38th busiest in the world. It ranks as Utah’s fourth largest employer with 12,500 workers. The airport has four runways and offers non-stop service to 70 cities. The airport is also home to 450 general aviation aircraft. A still unfulfilled dream of Salt Lake International boosters is direct international service to Europe and/or Asia.

Along with the expansion of a major carrier in Salt Lake, the Chamber also takes some credit for helping a home-grown airline get off the ground. David Neeleman, a young student at Salt Lake City’s East High School, began a little air charter business arranging flights between Utah and Hawaii. He approached June and Mitch Morris of Morris Travel about starting a low-cost, no-frills airline. The Chamber’s Aviation Committee endorsed the idea. Borrowing the Southwest Airlines model, Morris Air started with just two planes.

Soon June Morris became the nation’s only female chief executive officer in the jet airline business. By 1993, she presided over a work force of 2,000, a fleet of 21 Boeing 737-300 airliners and served 27 cities with 1,000 flights a week. Southwest Airlines purchased Morris Air in 1993 and integrated Morris’ Salt Lake hub into its operations. That same year, the Chamber honored June Morris with its Athena businesswoman award.

Sources: Salt Lake International Airport Web site, Typescript of Fred Ball at Chamber offices. Deseret News, 16 February 1971, 31 August 1971, 3 April 1975, 4 Feb 1976, 17 Feb 1976, 2 Dec 1976, 19 April 1978, 26 April 1978, 28 October 1982, 3 November 1983, 26 October 1984. Salt Lake Tribune, 1 December 1974. Peg McEntee, “Utah’s Morris Air is Strong Competitor in Western Market,” Associated Press, 12 November 1993.

By | January 18th, 2015|Ball EraChamber History|0 Comments

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