Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with staff at “my” airport, Denver International Airport (known amongst flyers as DEN, but locally as “DIA”). DIA is the 5th-busiest airport in the US, and 13th-busiest in the world. During the few hours I spent with them, I got an up close and personal view of the massive expansion project in progress; the largest construction project at the airport since DIA was originally built 20+ years ago.
The South Terminal Redevelopment Program (STRP), with expected completion in 2015, will include a 519-room Westin hotel and conference center, as well as a commuter rail train platform, directly linking DIA with downtown Denver. This will be the first truly “on-site” hotel at DIA, and the significant conference space will allow for fly-in meetings and events without ever needing to leave the airport. DIA also reports that spotters will have an excellent view of the airfield from the upper levels of the hotel.
The commuter rail train platform, one of the few successful pieces of Denver’s much-maligned FasTracks rail expansion, will (in 2016) provide a direct link from the terminal to downtown Denver. This connection is about 20 years overdue, and sorely needed at DIA (which some locals joke is nearly in Kansas, at least when compared to the old Stapleton Airport). Hopefully, this will boost already robust conference and business travel to the area, and make for an easier trip to and from the airport.
The construction project itself is a hearty undertaking. According to Project Manager Stu Williams, the amount of dirt removed for this project could fill Denver’s Mile High Stadium 2 1/2 times (interesting fact: that dirt is all being warehoused on-site, on the footprint of a future taxiway and runway). The project has also had to build a tunnel under the main airport access road, reinforce the “circus tent” roof with temporary rigs, and demolish the six main bridges leading to and from departures, arrivals, and commercial vehicle levels.
About those temporary rigs for the roof – the heavy-duty stake cables holding up the roof were obviously in the way of the construction site. This presented a monumental task; the tension needed to be maintained while removing the wires; thus, engineers built a structural marvel (albeit temporary) to take on the roof load. Williams likened it to “changing a tire while a car is still driving.” While pictures don’t really do it justice, I can assure you that in person the rigs are massive and seem almost overbuilt.
While this expansion is massive, it has little to do with actual airport operations. The key focus of this project is the hotel and the train platform, along with some additional transit space (they are also preparing for a future additional TSA checkpoint). Why such a large hotel on-site at the airport? Laura Coale, Media Relations Director with Denver International Airport, reminded me that projects such as this are all about non-airline revenues. Why should you care as a flyer? Because boosting non-airline revenues lowers airport costs, resulting in lower fares, more destinations, and higher frequencies.
Denver isn’t just growing on the south end of the main terminal. DIA recently announced an addition of five new gates to the C Concourse for Southwest Airlines, which has been growing like crazy in Denver. From a schedule of 13 daily flights in 2006, Southwest now flies 160 flights per day to 60 destinations. They have eclipsed Frontier Airlines as the number two carrier at DIA, behind United, which is number one.
With Denver International Airport’s massive site (they are the largest airport, by land, in the US at nearly double the size of DFW, which is #2), the potential for expansion is strong. DIA can more than double the number of runways currently built, and add additional concourses as it becomes necessary. The one thing DIA has been missing over the years is significant transoceanic international service (despite strong service to Mexico and Canada); Denver has been served by British Airways to London, and Lufthansa to Frankfurt (and Munich at times), but that’s been changing recently. Icelandair launched service in 2012, and recently United Airlines began nonstop daily service to Tokyo Narita, utilizing a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Denver International Airport’s prospects for growth, and ability to do so, are strong. Being Denver-based, I’m looking forward to following DIA as it moves forward.