The master plans of Utah’s Tooele Valley and South Valley's regional airports are just as important as Salt Lake City International’s.

As regional hubs grow, airports—especially small ones—play a crucial role in planning

The master plans of Utah’s Tooele Valley and South Valley's regional airports are just as important as Salt Lake City International’s.

Building an airport requires years of advance planning, perhaps more so than building for many other industries. Because airports use a lot of space, make a lot of noise, and need to fulfill specific purposes, planners conduct in-depth studies to determine feasibility, environmental impact, facility requirements, and growth potential. Basically, they try to predict the future.

In Utah, smaller airports—especially in the Salt Lake City area—will play supplementary roles developed alongside Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) for relieving transit congestion as well as boosting business development and regional growth.

While regional airports ensure there is another option for SLC in the event of bad weather or overcrowding, they also service flight schools, skydiving, private charters, support for the nearby military base, and firefighting. Planners say they aim to expand these offerings and ensure the region has the necessary tools to continue growing.

Late last year, the SLC airport system published a master plan for their 20-year planning processa timeline the designers themselves consider a short look into the future but an important step in ensuring infrastructure is laid out effectively.

Regional airports work in systems. In SLC’s system, the Salt Lake airport works in tandem with Tooele Valley and South Valley airports. Airports big and small have to consider the national picture to adequately judge future traffic and changing uses of resources, as well as anticipate whether the FAA will approve their plans.

“Each has their own set of pitfalls and benefits and uses,” says Sean Nelson, the airport planning manager at Utah’s Department of Airports and the project manager for last year’s master plan. “It really just depends on a lot of factors.”

The international airport is a prime spot, says Pete Maiman, a project manager of the South Valley master plan and consultant with the firm RS&H. Global jetliners, general aviation business jets, and similar operations will still be serviced by the international airport going forward.

“Any good planner is thinking beyond twenty years,” says Kelsey Reeves, project director for the Tooele Valley master plan, who is also a consultant with RS&H. “We often use a growth framework. We sent out a survey to users of the airports, and they got a good response. There is a demand for facilities at the other two airports.”

“Reliever” airports are the ace in the hole for air traffic planners because they provide important backup plans and ways to fill several needs simultaneously. Houston has 10, for example, and there are 270 in the country.

As SLC becomes busier and more traffic-laden, the other airports will relieve it, Maiman says. Tooele is a 30-minute drive from the city, but it’s already started to see a lot of development. There’s only so much room within the Salt Lake Valley.

The concept of reliever airports dates to the 1960s when funds were set aside to ensure that smaller airports could reduce traffic at the main hubs in each area. Travel in the years after World War II marked a huge shift for tourists: previously, many were taking boats to go overseas, with 90 percent of Europe’s visitors arriving by sea. After 1945, technology—particularly aviation—had shot forward, and air travel became a crucial sector.

To fill this need, major airports began to serve travelers. “Reliever” airports were designed to reduce the pressure at any one facility and provide service for general aviation (GA)—or smaller, often few-passenger aircraft—and non-travel aviation. Within a few decades, though, there was a problem. Reliever airports didn’t make any money, according to a 1980s report by airport planning and engineering firm Turner, Collie, and Braden.

“General aviation airports do not generate sufficient operating revenues to cover operating expenses and annual debt service and must, therefore, be subsidized through other revenue sources,” wrote William Metzger for the firm. “This information, if presented in a public forum, can lead to insurmountable opposition from the public for any proposed development.”

Metzger proposed making a uniform schedule of charges for airfield use across a system (like Salt Lake City, for example) and creating tiers for different airports’ roles. Major hubs can handle large passenger jets, while what he referred to as “secondary relievers” might service GA. Then there are “utility relievers,” which have small runways and serve more specific needs.

"In the airport planning world, [20 years] is a short-sighted look. We really need to look at the 50-year mark … We need to put in place issues and ordinances and work with the community so we don’t have incompatible growth around the airport."

The FAA provides subsidies and grants to airports that meet the requirements for operation under various distinctions, which is a key part of how they are funded.

In Utah, the trick is balancing that whole framework of a tightly maintained and long-run national operation against the needs of a local community. The SLC airport will be crucial in future business and development for the state as various sectors grow and Utah becomes a more popular event destination. Planners need to take that into consideration. Regional airports will become increasingly important, and each brings its own focus.

“Tooele Valley Airport is what we consider a diamond in the rough. It doesn’t have a lot of development on it, but it has what we consider a lot of potential,” says Brady Fredrickson, senior aviation planner at Salt Lake City Corporation.

South Valley, meanwhile, is much closer to SLC and can act as an effective reliever as a result—but it also brings challenges. It’s so in line with SLC that they have to be careful about how planes will interact with each other in the airspace.

Seeing future problems like this is a key aspect of a planner’s job.

Planners develop alternatives for how to use the land, according to Reeves: where to place facilities that operate well or poorly together, how to organize taxi fields and lanes, and whether there is a need for a longer runway. They bring in airport stakeholders as well as representatives from the community.

Meanwhile, one trend is that more people are living closer to airports. That’s been happening across the country for a long time, Nelson says. As industrial sites and businesses grow around airports, living spaces crop up—then people get frustrated with noise and traffic.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he explains. “The community grows around it, and then at some point in time, the community views the airport as a nuisance.” 

For example, some people say the airport is devaluing their property, Nelson says, even if the airport was there when they bought the land and built the house. “It’s an existing condition,” he says, but that can be something they have to consider in their planning and balance it with the need to create an economic center that’s attracting people to jobs. “It’s a weird dynamic, and we’re just trying to do our best.”

According to Fredrickson, p​lanning never stops at an airport. Just because you’re in a master plan process doesn’t mean you stop developing.

“We can never stop growing because business doesn’t stop so we can plan,” Fredrickson says. “In the airport planning world, [20 years] is a short-sighted look. We really need to look at the 50-year mark … We need to put in place issues and ordinances and work with the community so we don’t have incompatible growth around the airport.”

And at the end of the day, the key element is that the airport is an economic asset, not a liability.

“You need to be actively working day in and day out not just to provide world-class facilities for the users but also … protecting the airport for the users, protecting that economic investment.” 

Jack Dodson is a reporter and documentary filmmaker most recently based in Palestine-Israel from 2018-2022. He has reported for Vice, BBC, The Intercept, Middle East Eye, among many others. He has a master’s in investigative journalism and documentary from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree from Elon University in rhetoric.