Denver International Airport is one of the world’s largest airports, and it’s about to get even bigger. At the end of July, a contract was approved by Denver City Council to hire New York based WSP USA to manage a 26-gate expansion costing $45 million. Just two weeks later, Council OK’d a 30-year, $1.8 billion renovation and operation contract for the main terminal known as the Great Hall. These major construction projects come on the heels of a new 360-room Westin airport hotel inaugurated in 2015 and 23-mile light rail connecting the airport to Union Station downtown, which started running in spring of 2016.
According to DEN spokesperson, Heath Montgomery, the gate expansion is necessary for flight operations, “Airlines have requested additional gates, and we are able to respond to their needs. United, Southwest, and Frontier – all 3 are experiencing tremendous growth. We are better positioned to expand at incrementally lower cost because of good planning done almost 23 years ago.”
Contrasted with gate expansion, the Great Hall proposal was met with initial concern by airlines and some City Council members. According to Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, “The public-private or P3 model moves some of the risk. On one hand, the need to do some improvements is important to keep people safe. But I did have questions.” Ortega’s concerns included making the sure the city was listening to airport concerns about logistics and providing City Council members enough time and staff expertise to properly evaluate multiple contracts. “We had been asking for the contract and they brought me two boxes with 15,000 pages of addendums to the contract. It was really challenging to ensure adequate review, understanding and decision making.” Ortega continued, “Now that it’s done, they are proceeding. We now have to make sure we stay within budget and as things come up they are addressed immediately.” One of Ortega’s goal is to improve the City’s small business office to ensure better training for small businesses and businesses owned by people of color. She also wants to ensure those firms are included in DEN business opportunities.
DEN CEO Kim Day has guided the airport through the major expansion efforts of the last several years. She has been operating as the Mayoral appointed CEO since John Hickenlooper appointed her in 2008 and has continued under Mayor Hancock. In a statement she said, “The Great Hall project is critically important to ensuring the safety and success of Denver International Airport for decades to come. Although DEN remains the country’s youngest commercial airport, no one could have predicted how security and technology would fundamentally change the aviation industry and passenger processing over the last two decades. By investing in this project, we will prepare DEN for the future: enhancing security, increasing capacity, updating aging systems and elevating the overall passenger experience.”
Spanish-based Ferrovial Aeropuertos has partnered with Denver based Saunders Concessions and Magic Johnson Enterprises to form the Great Hall Partners for the renovation. During construction, 450 construction jobs will be created. Once operating, 800 permanent employees will be needed for janitorial, general customer service and concessions. According to Montgomery, “This is a project that will fundamentally change the travel experience.” Construction is expected to start in mid to late summer.
With all the construction, companies certified as airport DBEs (Disadvantaged Business Enterprises) should see an increase in opportunities but for World Wide Money Exchange concession owner Deborah Quintana, the jury is still out. “I don’t see it happening yet. They have DBE owners on selection committees but they haven’t necessarily included them in key decisions. We are always hopeful but the pattern of how things have been done doesn’t favor us.” Quintana is bidding on international money exchange opportunities in Houston and recently won a concession in the San Jose, California airport. Given her specialized business area, she hopes, “My type of service may be on hold over during construction. We are looking at some of the new opportunities.” Quintana hopes existing DBEs are given new opportunities but sees space for new players, “I hope companies who have been there for a while don’t get put on the back burner, I would like to see more peers from our community.”
DEN Real Estate
The construction boom is not limited to just inside the airport. Montgomery also points to Denver’s “Aerotropolis” or the initiative known as “DEN Real Estate” as, “…also driving growth on property around the airport.” Montgomery continues, “Already Panasonic has built a new headquarters for Panasonic Enterprise Solutions at 61st and Pena. That building and others will be a catalyst for new development nodes around the airport.” Montgomery anticipates major investment by corporate America near the airport for commercial development, agriculture, hotel and office space and business supporting the aviation industry. A marketing effort touting development locations around the airport will be rolled out in the next several weeks.
Denver City Councilwoman, Stacie Gilmore represents District 11, including the area around the airport. She is optimistic about the airport’s future, “Denver International Airport has seen and continues to have phenomenal growth. In 2016, the airport served a record 58.3 million passengers and will exceed that in 2017 looking to serve more than 60 million visitors. We must ensure that airport facilities, including gate and concourse expansion are keeping pace to allow the city and region’s largest economic engine the ability to thrive. DEN has room to double its operations and about 16,000 acres available for commercial development providing significant opportunities to District 11 residents, businesses, and our region as a whole.”
DEN as Economic Engine
Denver’s Department of Aviation is incorporated as an enterprise fund which does not rely on taxpayer funding, but rather the operations of the airport itself to fund its management. As the largest economic engine in the state, 35,000 people work at the airport.
Denver was ranked as the world’s 17th busiest airport in 2014 and slipped to 19th in 2015. More than 54 million passengers used DEN in 2015, an increase of 1 percent from the previous year. This year, administrators project DEN passenger air traffic at more than 58 million. In the U.S., only Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth, and New York’s JFK Airport exceed Denver’s traffic. Growth in passenger traffic at those airports in 2014-2015 exceeds Denver, except for Dallas/Forth Worth.
DEN is expanding its international passenger traffic numbers and number of foreign carriers using the airport. In 2017 alone, new international carriers include Norwegian Air and Copa Airlines. The addition of Edelweiss Air, a Swiss carrier, has been announced for summer 2018. New destinations this year include Belize City by Southwest, London Gatwick through Norwegian, Panama City by Copa Airlines, and Cozumel by United. DEN now includes service to 25 international cities in 11 countries. A list of almost 190 destinations and 25 airlines flying out of DEN is included on their web site: