““Last year, complaints about airlines increased 22%. There were probably more complaints, but the airlines lost them.” ”
Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City, well known for its founding by Mormon pioneers in 1847 and as the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, gained the nickname "Crossroads of the West" after the "Golden Spike" symbolically completed the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, just north of the Great Salt Lake. Today, Salt Lake City proper has a population of about 180,000, but the entire urban area-on the large, flat plain that was once the lakebed of the 20,000 square-mile Lake Bonneville-is one of the fastest-growing major metropolises in the U.S.
Boasting more than two million souls in the 80 miles between Ogden in the north and Provo in the south, the Wasatch Front area has one of the youngest populations, enjoys a diverse economy and is only minutes from some of the country's finest outdoor recreation-and not just snow skiing. The region hosted the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, after all. Salt Lake City is a banking and high-tech hub-Unisys, Siebel, 3M and L-3 have huge campuses there. Aviation-related companies also are putting down roots. Williams International has a large jet engine plant in Ogden and Spectrum Aeronautical will build its business jets to the south in Spanish Fork.
Salt Lake's diverse, albeit compact, topography has spawned a bountiful network of corporate-class airports that mostly are located along a 90-mile stretch of Interstate Highway 15, the basin's main north-south ground artery. With the steep-sloped Wasatch Front as a barrier to the east, the Great Salt Lake and the Oquirrh Mountains (rich with copper and other minerals) inhibit growth to the west. Within this relatively narrow, 110-square-mile band, elevations range from 4,200 to more than 11,000 feet. Routing air traffic into, out of and through the area presents a myriad of challenges that sometimes mean instrument approaches aren't available at certain airports.
Nevertheless, as Salt Lake grows, so does ground traffic on I-15 (and the east-west artery, I-80), and this has gone a long way toward making suburban airports more popular with business travelers.
Here's a look at your options for arriving in Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake City International
Fourteen airlines fly from Salt Lake City International, but Delta is the 800-pound gorilla with 628 daily scheduled flights (out of 800 total for the airport) between it and its commuter carriers. Overall, the airport processed 21.5 million passengers in 2006 and is the nation's 22nd busiest, with 421,416 takeoffs and landings in 2006. The airlines accounted for about 75 percent of that amount. The airport is within 60 miles of 11 world-class ski resorts and adjacent to the Wingpointe Golf Course. It is also just a seven-minute drive into the heart of downtown Salt Lake City and there are ample hotels right next to the airport.
There are two FBOs here and where you go is largely a function of what you need. If you are tired, need pampering and your airplane is broken, try Million Air. I limped in late at night without notice. The staff found me a nice hotel and gave great directions and good service, even though I wasn't buying fuel. The posh terminal was remodeled two years ago and features commanding views of the mountains, and even its own theatre room. The owners bought the FBO in 1995 and have built a solid service department with 28 full-time technicians, who work in two shifts daily and can service just about any turbine-powered aircraft. Million Air is also equipped to get you in and out when the winter weather turns foul, with 12 plow trucks and plenty of de-icing equipment. Million Air Salt Lake scored No. 15 on the 2008 FBO survey by BJT sister publication Aviation International News, a very respectable score for a facility in a market this size.
Salt Lake Jet Center isn't quite as plush and doesn't offer aircraft maintenance, but it provides good basic FBO services and respectable facilities. This FBO is part of the Rocky Mountain Jet Center chain and has been a fixture at the airport for many years. If you need a quick gas-and-go, the Jet Center is more than adequate.
Salt Lake City Municipal 2
Despite the awful name, Municipal 2 Airport is a gem of a facility, only 17 miles southwest of downtown. The ramp areas were recently strengthened and resurfaced, allowing substantially heavier aircraft to use the airport. The move has increased the amount of corporate-class traffic there. It offers a nonprecision GPS approach, but pilots can't always get it from ATC because of airspace and traffic conflicts with the other area airports. Plans are in the works for a precision GPS approach.
Air Center of Salt Lake, the sole FBO on the field, is building a new hangar and has plans for a new terminal building. The current terminal, although time-worn, has all the basic amenities. The Air Center has an extensive maintenance department with five full-time technicians who can work on just about anything.
A 276-acre airport, Ogden-Hinckley was founded in 1942 as a site to train Navy pilots. Today, close to 400 airplanes are based there as are three full-service FBOs and three restaurants. Last year, the airport recorded 107,000 takeoffs and landings. The main runway and ramps can support aircraft as large as a Boeing 757, and airport manager Ed Rich hopes someday to lure regional airline service to the facility. "One day, [Salt Lake City] will be just like Los Angeles, with commercial service in Provo and Ogden," Rich insisted.
Corporate traffic at Ogden-Hinckley is on the rise, thanks not only to Ogden's proximity to the northern suburbs, but also to the outstanding general aviation terminal on the field built by aviation enthusiast and industrialist Mel Kemp. The terminal at Kemp Jet Services features two good restaurants, Doolittle's Deli (try the Santa Monica barbecued pizza) and the upscale Rickenbacker's on the second floor (leather, stained glass, grand piano-not the usual décor for a general-aviation-airport restaurant).
Kemp feels like a high-end strip mall-the kind you might see on Hollywood's Rodeo Drive. The two-floor atrium lobby is decorated with large-scale WWI aircraft models suspended from the ceiling against hand-painted background murals of dogfights. The first floor contains several aviation-related businesses and some not-altogether aviation-related, like Greg Woodard's fine-art gallery. When I was there earlier this year, he was sculpting an impeccable wooden scale replica of a WWII P-51D Mustang fighter.
This FBO is the kind of place an aviation junkie never wants to leave and is a major draw on the airport. "The boss says, 'Let's fly into Ogden where we can rent a car and have a great meal.' We are seeing a lot of that," said Rich. Ogden is also a 10-minute drive to Hill Air Force Base and its outstanding aviation museum and extensive and eclectic aircraft collection.
Kemp just bought a competing FBO on the field, Mountain Valley Aviation, and is remodeling it.
A third FBO, Ogden Jet Center, is on the approach end of Runway 25. A distinctively different dining experience can be had nearby in the old terminal and tower building. At the Auger Inn ("auger in" is aviator slang for "crash"), you can dine on hearty, down-home, no-frills breakfast and lunch fare-like a side of tater tots-at a 1950s-style soda counter and trade good-natured barbs with the salty waitresses. There are also tables overlooking the runway. It's a bit like watching American Graffiti, the classic 1973 movie about 1962 Americana, only with airplanes.
The Million Air FBO at Provo Airport is only eight years old and is owned by the same company that operates its counterpart at Salt Lake International. The first floor houses a spacious lobby and pilot shop and a new hangar next door will be able to house everything up to a Gulfstream IV. Although there is extensive flight training on the field, this location is attracting more corporate traffic whose passengers are bound for the South Basin or the Eastern ski resorts such as Sundance. The airport has both a control tower and a precision approach.
Heber City Municipal
East of the I-15 corridor and only 10 minutes from Sundance and Park City, the FBO at Heber City Airport, OK3, features higher prices that reflect this proximity. The facility is nice and new. OK3 is a Pilatus and Cessna service center and its technicians have worked on aircraft as large as commuter jets. The airport is only one block from some good restaurants, and flight crews receive complimentary gym passes to a nearby health club. During Robert Redford's annual February Sundance Film Festival, the heavy iron-and the paparazzi-line up here like the Rockettes.
Plans are in the works to build a real FBO at Spanish Fork-Springville Airport-someday. But the lack of amenities-one tenant charitably calls the FBO a "fuel shack"-combined with the absence of a precision approach make this the region's airport of last resort for corporate operators.
Skiing Way Off The Trail
For an elite band of thrill-seekers, heli-skiing is the ultimate adrenaline rush.
"We change people's lives," said Mike Olson, one of the three owners of Wasatch Powderbirds (www.powderbird.com), one of the nation's premier heli-skiing tour operators. "Anyone who does this has a sense of adventure that we respect."
Every December 15 through April 15, Powderbirds, based at the Snowbird Resort outside Salt Lake City, takes 1,500 to 2,000 adventurers to places most skiers have never even contemplated--11,000 feet up the pristine backcountry of Utah's Cottonwood canyons. Powderbirds' clients include everyone from Hollywood glitterati to Denver dishwashers, who are each willing to part with $990 for up to six hours of unforgettable thrills. (Clients also can charter an entire helicopter for $4,500 per hour with a two-hour minimum.)
On a typical day, a skier will make seven runs with vertical drops of 1,500 to 3,000 feet each. An average run takes about 30 minutes. Most heli-skiers stay at area resorts but some fly in for the day in private jets. Powderbirds will pick up one to five skiers at Salt Lake Executive for a flat $2,000.
Customers begin arriving at 8 a.m.
to be fitted with rental skis and a transponder that emits a homing beacon. (The transponder helps to locate skiers if the unthinkable happens--an avalanche.) Then it's off to the mandatory safety briefing.
By 9 a.m., the first load of skiers is in the air. The guide on the first load has a small shovel and makes a landing pad in the snow about the size of the helicopter's skis. But even then, pilot James Brown said, it isn't uncommon for the helicopter, a Eurocopter AS 350B3 AStar, to sink down to its belly. Power must be maintained at all times. "If you land on a corniche, it can crack," explained Brown. "That makes things interesting."
The first load waits for the arrival of the second at the drop zone and then one guide leads, followed by eight skiers and a second guide. Guides synchronize their skiing speed and technique with those of customers; however, most heli-skiers have at least intermediate skills.
"You don't need to be an expert skier," Olson said, "but you need to be strong and accomplished. You want to ski through terrain quickly. Dawdling in big glacial bowls is not what you want to do" because of the potential for avalanches.
Guides communicate with one another and the pilot with portable radios and hand signals at the drop and pickup zones. The interplay between pilots and guides reflects shared knowledge and respect, said Olson. "Our pilots are very accommodating, but guides have to be smart enough to not ask them to go somewhere they shouldn't. For example, there are certain places you can go only when the helicopter is light on fuel." Rusty Dassing, Powderbird's president, added that guides also "need to know as much as the pilot about wind and weather."
One helicopter supports 24 skiers and six guides per day. That means pilot Brown must take off or land every four minutes and make two quick refueling stops per five- or six-hour day.
Skiers don't break for lunch but are provided with water and snacks between runs. "If you stop to have lunch, you miss out on a couple of runs," Olson explained. "Also, after people eat, they get tired, the blood goes to their stomachs, and they don't want to ski. Then you've lost your rhythm."
At the end of the day, skiers are treated to gourmet fare back at Powderbird's terminal. "We like to come back here and have a little party," Olson said. -M.H.
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