Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World’s Fastest-Growing Airports
Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Runway to the Rockies
Denver’s ascent to become one of America’s busiest airports can be traced back to the 1980s, when city leaders realized that aging, landlocked Stapleton International Airport could no longer handle rapidly increasing passenger loads. After considering expansion options, Denver announced plans for a massive new airport northeast of the city that broke ground in 1989.
The sheer scale of Denver International Airport (DEN) was unprecedented, with a footprint of 53 square miles – twice the size of Manhattan. Fit for the mile-high city, DEN would have the longest public runway in North America at 16,000 feet to aid heavily loaded aircraft operating at the airport’s high altitude. An automated baggage system – the largest of its kind – was devised to efficiently process passenger luggage. And an iconic tensile fabric roof structure designed by Santiago Calatrava greeted travelers upon arrival.
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- Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Runway to the Rockies
- Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Laying the Groundwork for Expansion
- Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Weathering Early Turmoil
- Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Rising Passenger Traffic Takes Off
- Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Hub for Low-Cost Carriers
- Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - International Ambitions Take Flight
- Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Old Dog Learns New Tricks
- Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Blue Skies Ahead
Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Laying the Groundwork for Expansion
Even before the final bolt was tightened on DIA’s signature tented roof, Denver officials realized the airport would need additional capacity to keep up with projected growth. With ample land already secured through the airport’s initial development, DEN was uniquely positioned for expansion.
While many hub airports are hemmed in by urban development, DEN’s location on the windswept plains northeast of Denver provided room to grow. The airport’s midfield concourses were designed for modular expansion, providing space for new gates to be seamlessly added.ARGET="_blank">www.pandoraukstore.co.uk/pandora-charms/chamilia-3420.html">Pandora Secret Garden Life 3420 charm
Today, DEN’s expansive footprint allows it to juggle simultaneous operations at six runways – the most at any airport in North America. And there is still space for more. DEN’s latest master plan calls for growing from 153 to over 200 gates by 2030 to meet projected demand.
But adding concrete alone does not guarantee growth – airlines must commit to establishing or expanding hub operations as well. United Airlines, DEN’s largest carrier, has steadily upgauged aircraft and added new destinations from its Mile High hub. Frontier Airlines maintains a large operation at its Denver hometown that serves 85 destinations. And Southwest Airlines has grown rapidly in Denver following its acquisition of AirTran.
To entice added service, DEN has heavily invested in support infrastructure like an on-airport hotel, ground transportation solutions like the country’s most advanced baggage system and an array of pet amenities to ease the stress of traveling with animals. Food and retail options abound, with everything from gourmet dining to outposts of Colorado brands like Leavenworth Mountain Coffee.
DEN scored a major coup in bringing the Great Hall project to fruition, which reimagined the airport’s main Jeppesen terminal. The $770 million effort delivered the country's largest self-bag drop system and streamlined security screening while adding breathtaking Colorado-themed art installations.
Even transportation to and from the airport received an upgrade. In 2016, the University of Colorado A-Line launched, whisking travelers from downtown Denver to DEN in just 37 minutes from end to end.
Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Weathering Early Turmoil
Denver International Airport’s opening was anything but smooth. The ambitious $5 billion project was plagued by technical glitches, budget overruns, and construction delays that pushed the opening from October 1993 to February 1995. Even then, operations did not go as planned.
The airport’s much-touted automated baggage system simply did not work. Computer glitches and mechanical breakdowns resulted in bags piling up and travelers fuming. United Airlines alone misplaced over 1,500 bags on opening day due to the high-tech system’s failure. Without a functioning baggage handling operation, DEN had to implement manual loading and transport of luggage – a system that persists today.
Early maintenance issues like cracking runways, stalled escalators and malfunctioning trains further marred operations. Car rental outlets ran out of vehicles, concessionaires lacked adequate staff, and wayfinding signage confused travelers. Mayor Wellington Webb put it bluntly, “We have an airport that doesn’t work.”
Critics blasted DEN as an over-designed vanity project with little concern for passenger experience. Nicknamed “Dysfunction Junction,” the airport became the butt of late-night TV jokes. Facing intense public scrutiny, city officials had to regain trust and get the airport running properly.
A massive effort commenced to work out the kinks. United Airlines footed its own $50 million bill to build a baggage sorting facility so it could ditch the ill-fated automated system. Hundreds of additional customer service agents were hired to aid passengers. Wayfinding signs were clarified and expanded. Concessions were re-staffed. Rental car operations secured enough vehicles to meet demand.
The city remains embroiled in disputes over faulty automated system construction, but DEN pushed through the turmoil. Though the airport became fully operational, criticism lingered even as passenger loads ramped up.
Airport officials took the complaints to heart and focused intently on customer service. Passenger surveys were conducted, complaint data analyzed and new amenities catering to flyers were added. DEN built upon its existing art program, bringing famous pieces like the 32-foot-tall blue mustang sculpture greeting arrivals on Peña Boulevard. Free wi-fi and electrical outlets sprang up at gates so travelers could stay connected. Nursing rooms, pet relief areas, and a Canine Airport Therapy Squad that brings dogs to de-stress anxious flyers reflect DEN’s passenger-focused approach.
Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Rising Passenger Traffic Takes Off
Denver International Airport’s ambitious $5 billion price tag was based on projections of serving 50 million annual passengers. Yet in its first full year of operations in 1995, DEN handled just over 30 million travelers. Airport officials remained confident the passenger base would materialize as Denver grew. Their faith was rewarded.
Within five years annual passenger loads eclipsed 40 million, validating DEN’s future-focused design. In the new millennium travel demand at DEN really took flight. Passenger traffic doubled from 2000 to 2017, hitting over 61 million travelers and cementing Denver’s place as the fifth busiest airport in North America.
What fueled DEN’s meteoric rise to become one of the continent’s mega hubs? The airport’s mile high location makes it a logical connecting point for cross-country itineraries. Denver also attracts a booming regional market – seven of the ten fastest growing U.S. counties are located within 150 miles. A diverse mix of industries from tech to healthcare positions Denver as an economic powerhouse. And the Rocky Mountain region’s majestic natural amenities make Colorado an alluring destination.
DEN capitalized on these advantages to drive traffic. The airport enticed new carriers and convinced existing ones like United to expand Denver operations. Frontier Airlines has mushroomed into Denver’s second largest airline, funneling leisure flyers through the Mile High City. Southwest Airlines has blanketed the region with point-to-point flights following its AirTran acquisition. And DEN landed Denver’s first-ever nonstop to Asia on United’s Tokyo Narita service.
Innovation has been key to handling skyrocketing demand. DEN developed its robust fixed-base operator program to efficiently guide general aviation traffic. The airport implemented cutting-edge systems to optimize aircraft taxiing and shave minutes off the departure process. And an array of infrastructure enhancements like an on-site hotel, new security screening lanes and expanded baggage systems prepare DEN for even more travelers.
DEN’s passenger experience enhancements help ensure traveler satisfaction remains high even as its concourses get busier. From therapy dogs to art exhibits showcasing Colorado talent, it’s apparent great thought has been put into the airport’s offerings. Travelers have taken notice – DEN ranks among the country’s top airports in passenger surveys.
Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Hub for Low-Cost Carriers
Denver's vast airport infrastructure and mountain west location have proven enticing for low-cost carriers looking to expand operations. While network legacy airlines largely operate hub-and-spoke systems, budget airlines utilize point-to-point flying. They aim to nimbly enter and exit markets where their ultra-low fares can stimulate demand.
Denver's demographic profile positions it well for low-cost growth. The airport serves a large regional population filled with a young, outdoor-loving demographic perfect for no-frills budget carriers catering to leisure flyers. The high percentage of originating passengers in Denver also suits the low-cost model that relies more on local traffic versus connections.
Southwest Airlines established a major presence in Denver following its acquisition of AirTran, which already served DEN. Southwest quickly became the airport's second largest carrier, blanketing the region with its extensive route map and launching long haul flights like Denver-Hawaii using its 737-MAX fleet.
Ultra low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines has effectively turned Denver into its largest base, making up about 20% of total airport traffic. Frontier pits its bare bones fares against Southwest to link Denver with destinations across the country like Orlando, Las Vegas and Philadelphia.
Spirit Airlines, a prototypical ultra-low cost carrier, commenced service to Denver in 2015. Spirit connects Denver to major Florida markets and leisure destinations in places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New Orleans. Fares often run less than $100 roundtrip, explaining how Spirit stimulates traffic.
DEN officials have worked to accommodate the growth of low-cost carriers by providing ample gate space and ensuring fees and operation costs remain reasonable. Airport leadership recognizes these budget airlines act as an economic development engine, ferrying tourists to Colorado's ski resorts and national parks.
Low-cost carriers have rewarded Denver's cooperation by funneling millions of passengers through DEN each year. Their low base fares open up air travel to those who previously could not afford it. And by competing with network airlines, they help keep fares affordable for all travelers.
Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - International Ambitions Take Flight
Beyond serving domestic routes, Denver International Airport has actively courted international service to transform into a globally connecting hub. Adding long-haul international flights benefits the airport and city on multiple fronts. Overseas routes provide revenue premiums and help attract business development. Internationals give Denver global brand recognition. And nonstop flights linking the Mile High City to world capitals enable easier access for both business and leisure travelers.
Denver's pursuit of international expansion ramped up in the early 2000s. At the time, the airport's only long-haul routes connected to major Canadian cities and Frankfurt. Shrinking air service following United's bankruptcy in 2002 threatened to isolate Denver. But airport officials saw opportunity in the crisis. They launched an aggressive air service development campaign that offered financial incentives for airlines to launch Denver flights.
This international push paid off with Lufthansa bringing back direct service to Germany. British Airways and Icelandair commenced transatlantic flights as Denver worked to build up Europe links. In 2008, DEN landed the holy grail – nonstop Asia service. Ever since United launched its Tokyo Narita route, the airport has been linked with major Asian business centers like Seoul, Beijing and Shanghai. securing the Tokyo flight demonstrated Denver could support global travel and validated its international gateway ambitions.
Today, Denver offers direct flights to more than two dozen international destinations across Europe, Asia, Mexico, Central America, and Canada. But the airport remains hungry for more, hoping to serve all six inhabited continents by 2022. Longstanding targets like Latin America continue to be a priority. And DEN aims to add secondary European cities like Munich and Dublin as it looks beyond the mega hubs.
Unique marketing has supported Denver's global push. Hotels in DEN's new on-airport Westin boasted passport stamps and boarding passes from across the world, reflecting travelers passing through. The airport's colorful displays visualize direct global connections through facts like the distance to Tokyo. Art exhibits showcase Denver's international dexterity, including a massive mural depicting Amelia Earhart's global adventures. Denver's outdoor spirit is also on display with massive models of wildlife and taxidermy inspired by trips around the globe.
Travelers have embraced Denver as an easy, efficient gateway between the Rocky Mountains and the world's top destinations. Major international carriers like Lufthansa now funnel connecting traffic through the Mile High City. Denver's cultural institutions offer globally inspired exhibits to take advantage of increased international visitation. And globally recognizable Colorado brands like Breckenridge Brewery and Pendleton Whisky export the region's craft creations worldwide.
Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Old Dog Learns New Tricks
Even an airport that appears to have everything sometimes needs to reinvent itself to keep attracting passengers and revenue in an industry known for turbulence. Though passenger numbers were skyrocketing, Denver International Airport officials knew they couldn’t rest on their laurels. To build financial resilience and offer an exceptional customer experience amidst rising passenger volumes, DEN has continually updated its approach.
One space that received a dramatic facelift was the Great Hall in the Jeppesen Terminal. As the main entry point for travelers, it sets an all-important first impression. But the spartan halls with dated dining establishments felt designed for a different era. DEN sold airport leadership on a $770 million modernization effort for the Great Hall to completely transform the arrival and ticketing experience through 2024.
The reimagined Great Hall delivered the country’s largest self-bag drop system to speed travelers on their way. Security was streamlined by consolidating document checking and screening into one seamless process. Artwork and shopping showcasing beloved Colorado brands were added to give travelers a taste of Denver from touchdown. And interactive light installations spanning floors and ceilings use color to honor Colorado’s rare bluebird skies.
DEN also updated the concession program throughout the airport to emphasize premier local operators. The award-winning Root Down airport location offers a true farm-to-tray dining experience. Smashburger satisfies burger cravings with fresh Colorado beef. Even craft breweries like New Terrain Brewing Company offer an outpost to let travelers enjoy locally-brewed beverages. The focus on iconic regional brands has been such a success that DEN’s concession sales ranked #1 in the U.S. for airports its size in 2015.
Then there is DEN’s tech transformation to implement next-generation solutions benefiting everyone from operations staff to travelers. Airport crews manage aircraft, gates, and ramps using wi-fi enabled devices instead of paper. Near field communications allow computers, vehicles, and equipment to “talk” to one another for more efficient aircraft servicing. And travelers enjoy conveniences like virtual queuing that enables them to wander the terminal until it’s time to clear security.
Implementing new innovations has required DEN to attract talent as skilled in systems architecture as aviation management. The airport’s IT team has grown over 20% in under a decade to oversee DEN’s tech-enabled operation. And the airport actively sources promising new technologies by operating an on-site lab space where ideas can be prototyped and explored.
Mile High Club: How Denver International Became One of the World's Fastest-Growing Airports - Blue Skies Ahead
Though it endured a bumpy ascent, DEN now cruises at high altitude thanks to sound leadership and continuous improvement. Recent accolades validating Denver’s status as a premier global hub include being named America’s Best Large Airport by Wall Street Journal readers.
Passenger volumes continue soaring to new heights – DEN served over 69 million travelers in 2019. The airport is poised to recover rapidly from pandemic-related setbacks and could eclipse pre-COVID traffic as early as 2023.
But DEN refuses to rest on past achievements alone to power future growth. With boundless Plains sprawling around the terminals, Denver Airport knows it has ample room to expand infrastructure as demand warrants. Already, 39 new gates are planned to open by 2027. A seventh runway will provide added capacity for simultaneous operations. And transit links like the A-Line train are being expanded across the metro region to quicken access to DEN’s gates.
Yet DEN realizes increased concrete and jets alone don’t guarantee continued success. Exceptional customer service and memorable experiences are essential to win repeat loyalty from travelers. That’s why DEN focuses on unique amenities that celebrate the airport’s Colorado home, like a Canine Airport Therapy Squad that brings adoptable dogs airside to cheer anxious flyers. The airport also spotlights local cuisine and arts through an award-winning concessions program. These programmatic additions earn Denver awards like Best Airport for Art from USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice.
Though it operates as a city-owned enterprise, DEN takes cues from world-class private sector brands to constantly evolve. Airport CEO Phil Washington brings valuable perspective from revamping LA Metro. The airport incentivizes employees to think creatively through an innovations team. Partnering with startups via the DEN LaunchPad program yields breakthroughs in passenger experience tech.
Travelers have noticed Denver Airport’s continual improvements. DEN ranks among the global top ten airports according to passenger surveys by respected groups like Skytrax and AirHelp. Flyers praise innovations like virtual queuing that eliminate waiting in line for TSA screening. Complimentary wi-fi throughout enables passengers to stay productive or entertained. And cutting-edge baggage systems whisk bags swiftly between check-in and plane.