As you begin your final descent into Denver, you hear the unmistakable sound of the landing gear dropping. Objects that just moments before looked Lilliputian---cars, trucks and trains---once again take on normal dimensions. And the airport, DIA, with its unique architecture, comes into view. In minutes you’ll be inside and the strangers you’ve spent the last several hours with will disappear through the jetway, most never to be seen again. You’re home.
Inside, the self-contained city is a hive of activity. No surprise, every day more than 33,000 workers punch the clock at DIA. They staff the airport’s 170 shops and restaurants as well as every nook and cranny that requires a warm body. That would include everything from flight services to baggage handlers, healthcare personnel to cops and security. There’s even a jail at the airport. Stuff happens.
Since the first plane touched down at DIA---a United flight from Colorado Springs on February 28, 1995---approximately 1.16 billion passengers have passed through the airport. Planners knew the airport would take off but, perhaps, not to the dizzying heights that it’s reached 25 years later.
In aviation parlance, initial projections for DIA landed short. When it opened, it expected to serve 31 million passengers annually. “We anticipate we’ll be close to 70 million in 2019,” said DIA Public Information Officer Alex Renteria. Official numbers won’t be available until later this year. “We’re the sixth busiest airport in the country and 20th busiest in the world.” The trajectory is still climbing.
Denver City Council last week signed an agreement with United Airlines---DIA’s biggest tenant---to begin expansion work on 39 new gates, said Renteria. The expansion “will be completed by the end of 2021,” said the DIA spokesperson, with the gates “operational in the first quarter of 2022.” The expansion will add an additional 200 United departures daily from its current 500 by 2025.
That can only be good news for the city and state. The DIA engine leads the pack in powering Colorado’s economy, generating an estimated $33.5 billion dollars annually, said Renteria. The figure is from a 2020 Statewide Aviation Economic Impact Study. The study also showed that DIA seemed to almost, magically manufacture new jobs.
Over a five-year period ending in 2019, jobs created by DIA grew from 183,878 to 259,084. Many of these jobs have sprouted up along the corridor south of DIA on the 21,000 acres of land known collectively as The Aerotropolis. Growth in the area has included homes, dining, lodging and scores of small business, many if not most, connected directly to the airport.
DIA is also a foreign travelers first introduction to this country, said Emily Williams, also an airport PIO who joined Renteria for the interview. DIA now offers flights to 29 international destinations. That number also reflects significant growth. “In 2018,” said Williams, there was “a thirteen percent growth” in international travel passengers.
But while DIA is generally in the best health it’s ever been in, there is the problem of the throbbing headache known as ‘the Great Hall,’ the terminal area where passengers deboard the airport trains and where construction has been on-going for what seems like forever. And while forever may be different to passengers and others at DIA, it’s also different for airport planners.
Last August, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock ended the contract with the Great Hall builders over issues of delays, cost overruns and changes. It was no small decision. The builders will receive a huge settlement based on the original $1.8 billion contract which included $650 million for renovation. As a result, airport users will continue to navigate unsightly barriers that are now part of airport aesthetics as they work their way through and around the airport.
The first nail on the project was struck in 2018 and project completion was promised by 2021. But the disagreement between the two sides and subsequent termination of the contract for the Great Hall renovation has put a date on completion as late as 2025. DIA acknowledges the inconvenience for all who are affected and asks, simply, “to bear with us.” What the final, completed project will look like remains a mystery. “We will not have renderings of the Great Hall Project until March,” said Renteria.
In the meantime, say DIA officials, airport staff will work as hard as possible to minimize any inconvenience as a result of the Great Hall snafu as well as to simply do what it did before the undertaking---make the DIA experience memorable. “Any space in the airport where you decide to take a load off is a good experience,” said Renteria. And that includes restaurants.
DIA was recently voted the best airport in the country for great food. The survey, based on Yelp restaurant ratings and conducted by Wanderu, ranked the 50 best airports in the country for dining experience. Denver nosed out Dallas-Fort Worth and Phoenix Sky Harbor.
So, whether you’re flying to Amsterdam or Aspen, DIA, officials say, is a great starting point.