When members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints return from missionary work, they’re usually greeted at the airport by their entire family, sometimes with professionally made ‘Welcome Home’ banners, balloons, horns and even photographers.
In Salt Lake City — headquarters of the Mormon church — those crowds have clogged up the waiting and baggage-claim areas and parking lots at Salt Lake City International Airport, where tens of thousands of church members head out and come back from missions that can last two years. It’s become a problem for an airport that has gained a reputation as being crowded and difficult to traverse at a time when the region’s population is swelling.
So when airport officials began to design a $3.6 billion renovation, they included a new meet-and-greet reception area where missionaries and their families can gather away from the rest of the traveling public. The space can be used for military homecomings and other types of families who want to welcome back loved ones. Financing of the airport renovation continues Wednesday, when the city sells about $850 million of revenue bonds.
“Obviously the church probably represents the largest single institutional travel base,” Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Salt Lake City department of airports, said in an interview. “They have their own travel office who we talk with on a regular basis. In that sense for the airport, they’re like any other really large institutional travel entity, you’re always going to be interested in what they’re doing, what they’re thinking and how we can serve them.”
The airport, with the exception of runways and taxiways, is essentially being entirely rebuilt, Wyatt said. When completed in 2024, the overhaul will include a new terminal, concession stands, rental car facilities and parking lots.
Salt Lake City joins airports around the country that are in the process of getting face-lifts and tapping the municipal bond market to do it. Airports in New York City, Denver, Los Angeles and elsewhere have issued $11.5 billion in debt since the start of the year, a 16 percent increase from the same period in 2017.
It’s the Mormon client base that separates the Salt Lake region from airports around the country that are going through renovations, said John Strong, a professor of finance and economics at the College of William and Mary and an expert in the airline industry.
“The Salt Lake City investment is one of the few in the U.S. where there is enough of a population segment to warrant specific investments,” he said in an email.
An estimated 30,000 Mormons travel through Salt Lake International Airport each year on Church business, including missionaries, church leaders and employees, said church spokesman Daniel Woodruff. That doesn’t include church members who live in the area and use the airport for personal or business travel. It’s estimated that about 70 percent of Utah’s population identifies as Mormon, according to data analysis from the church and the U.S. Census.
Mormon missionaries, usually young men and women, are allowed to contact their families once a week through email and twice a year via a phone call or video message. Those communication restrictions help turn the airport send-off and welcome-home scene into such an emotionally important event, said Spencer Fluhman, director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
“It’s not unusual for parents and siblings and aunts and uncles, and grandparents to come and see a missionary off or to welcome them back,” he said. “It’s normal to come down the escalator from a secure area in the Salt Lake International airport, depending on the time of day and see hundreds of family members waiting to see their returning missionary son or daughter.”
Salt Lake City isn’t the only airport to design infrastructure to meet the needs of a specific group of travelers. Bangor International Airport in Maine has similar meet-and-greet facilities because military personnel often come through after and before deployment. The airport even has a group of volunteers known as the Maine Troop Greeters who wait for military members coming home or departing as they pass through.
The sheer size of the population of permanent travelers associated with the Mormon church is a marketing point for Salt Lake City when it sells the bonds and a factor that investors take into consideration.
“That travel is consistent whether you have a recession or not,” said JT Thompson, a Utah-focused portfolio manager at Aquila Group of Funds. “The headquarters of the church is in Salt Lake, there is a lot of flights in and out and that’s basically recession proof.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.