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Denver International Airport. Courtesy of DEN

Big, Expensive, and Growing: What’s the Future of DIA?

One of the world's largest, busiest, and most expensive airports has several pricey expansions and renovations on the horizon. We talked to city and airport officials about the coming changes.

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Since its opening in 1995, Denver International Airport has become the country’s sixth busiest airport and one of the world’s largest, second only to Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd International Airport. At just over 54 square miles, you could fit the island of Manhattan within DIA’s property. Twice.

While it’s still one of the country’s newest airports, DIA is on the cusp of several major projects. If you’ve driven Peña Boulevard to or from the terminal lately, you couldn’t have missed the almost-completed $14.5 million LED welcome sign. But that’s just one piece of DIA’s planned improvements: a $1.8 billion Great Hall renovation is expected to break ground in the summer of 2018; this past November, a $1.5 billion gate expansion to increase passenger capacity was approved by Denver City Council; and there’s a new $162 million contract in place for maintenance work on the underground train system. Those big-budget numbers don’t even cover a potential new concourse, or the developing vision for an “Airport City” designed to increase commercial and residential activity in the surrounding area.

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Though Stapleton International Airport was Colorado’s major aero-hub until 1995, the idea of a new and improved airport was first floated in the 1980s. At the time, Colorado was just starting to push back against its “fly-over country” identity, and a state-of-the-art airport was a way to put Denver on the map by diversifying its economy and becoming a global leader in aviation transportation, according to Ken Schroeppel, an expert in urban revitalization and assistant professor at the University of Colorado-Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning. While critics at the time argued it would be foolish to spend so much money—$4.8 billion—on an airport so far from downtown, Schroeppel says that today, “DIA has proved to be a greater success than even the boosters at the time were promising.”

According to an April story by the Denver Business Journal, DIA has an estimated $26 billion economic impact on the region. Because of that, says Denver’s Mayor Michael Hancock, the coming changes, while expensive, are worth it. “Your port is your greatest asset,” he says. “The fact that we’re landlocked means that water isn’t our greatest port, air is.”

Having an aviation powerhouse also means that airlines are likely to bring more business here. DIA is Southwest’s fourth busiest airport, and it holds Frontier’s headquarters and a United Airlines hub. Plus, easy access to nonstop and international flights attracts businesses looking for a place to establish themselves, says Kim Day, CEO of DIA. Businesses follow the airlines because “the global connectivity is imperative,” she says. Panasonic, for example, established its new headquarters in Denver last year in part because of a nonstop flight to Tokyo.

DIA was originally built to hold 50 million passengers. With 61 million travelers projected to have trekked through the Great Hall in 2017, the airport’s coming changes are largely meant to support its growing volume of visitors. And, given the billions of dollars in impact, it’s not surprising that in the second half of 2017, Denver’s City Council has approved more than $3 billion worth of projects at DIA. It’s important to note, though, that while the city owns the airport, DIA operates as an enterprise of the city, meaning it runs independently. In other words, taxpayers don’t foot the bill when it comes to airport-related projects; rather, airport projects are paid for by airport funds and loans, typically taken out as bonds.

Beginning in the summer of 2018, DIA will break ground on a series of renovations. Here’s a rundown of what’s in the works.

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Project: Great Hall Renovation

Price Tag: $1.8 billion
Breaking Ground: Summer 2018
Wrapping Up: 2021

When the City Council approved this nearly-$2 billion renovation in August, part of the deal’s appeal was that it modernizes DIA’s security systems. The airport crammed TSA checkpoints into the Great Hall in 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks dramatically changed airport security standards, forcing airports around the country to quickly re-think their procedures. They’ve since learned that adaptation resulted in higher vulnerability. “The airport is unsafe,” City Councilman Albus Brooks says, explaining that allowing un-ticketed passengers to access such a large area of the airport before security is a major risk. “We’ve got to do something ASAP,” he adds.

DIA’s long struggle with security is not unique. Airports all over the country are challenged by long wait-times and subpar processing. But, Day says, DIA’s struggle is “quite pronounced,” by having the TSA queuing area so exposed in the Great Hall. The renovation will involve completely upending the current TSA security procedures, and checkpoints will be moved from the Great Hall to where the ticket counters currently sit on level 6. The bridge security checkpoint, which leads to Concourse A, will be removed entirely. Airport officials also have plans to upgrade their systems and improve the security procedures altogether. Ticketing will be consolidated on the south end of the East and West terminals. With the Great Hall free of security’s winding lines, it will become a secured area for restaurants and shops.

The area where passengers currently undergo security at DIA will become a secured food and shopping destination after renovations. Photo courtesy of DEN

City Council support for this renovation has, generally, been high. Only two Council members voted against it—Councilman Espinoza, of District 1, and Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, of District 13. Espinoza fears DIA is overpaying for a plan that, he says, is “sort of meh.”

“They run the risk of having a very disappointing security experience in the end. They’re claiming to be able to funnel more passengers in less area than they had previously,” he says. “It’s more claustrophobic, and has the potential for being more distressing for passengers waiting in the queue.”

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On the other hand, Espinoza says, by overpaying so much from the get-go, that means they’re less likely to “go back to council with their hat in their hands, saying ‘We missed a few things, we need more money.’ Under no circumstance would I expect [them] to come forward for more money. If the airport does ever come forward for additional funding to save this project, they will have really screwed up. A breathtakingly stupid screw-up,” he says.

But District 11 Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, who represents DIA and the surrounding area, says the Great Hall renovation—and a number of the other upcoming changes—will address some of the airport’s main challenges. Given its age, she says, it’s important to make these kinds of investments to compete with other international airports.

“All of these upgrades and changes hopefully will make the customer and passenger experience better, and offer them more opportunities for shopping, dining, entertainment,” she says.

Who’s Paying For It?

Airport projects are typically paid for either through airport capital funds, or bonds. The Great Hall project, though, will be funded through a public-private partnership, known as a P3 deal. In this case, a private consortium called Great Hall Partners, which includes Ferrovial (a Spanish airport management giant), Saunders Concessions and Magic Johnson Enterprises, is funding about $170 million of the estimated $650 million total—the other approximate $480 million will be covered by DIA. In return, Great Hall Partners gets management oversight of what will become the Great Hall concessions area. The P3 deal runs for 34 years: four years for the renovation, and 30 years for Great Hall Partners to oversee concessions. The airport and Great Hall Partners will split the revenue made from the concessions in the Great Hall, according to a “strict percentage formula,” Day says.

“I think that what you’re going to find is that the trend around the country is that cities are looking for unique, creative ways to finance infrastructure,” Hancock says. “We don’t have the kind of financial support and backing anymore from the federal government, so we have to think creatively…Good business tells us we can find a [way to] transfer the risk.”

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Project: New Entryway Sign on Peña Boulevard

Price Tag: Originally $7 million. City Council approved a contract revision in October, doubling the budget to $14.5 million.
Broke Ground: Fall 2016
Wrapping Up: Pretty much now (Christmas, 2017)

Recent airport-goers driving up Peña Blvd. likely noticed the huge—as in, 1,000-foot—LED-light sign, letting them know they’ve entered airport property. Why does DIA need a sign? With its (objectively creepy) blue horse and white-peak tents, the airport is already notable—perhaps even notorious— for its architecture and design. But the sign, which is operated by Panasonic, presents an interesting new set of opportunities.

“I think it’s kind of iconic,” Brooks says. “And they wanted a place for people to be able to advertise. I mean, 60 million passengers come through there, and so advertising is really important. I get the idea.”

But support for the sign has not been as high compared to some of the other upcoming projects. “I understand that people see a lot of issues going on in the city, and they equate the sign to waste, but what people don’t see is that DIA can’t address issues going on in the city,” Brooks says. “They can’t spend any dollars on the city. It’s a completely separate issue.”

A rendering of the new LED entryway sign at the airport. Photo courtesy of DEN.

While nearly everyone on the Council approved more funding for the sign, Espinoza was the only member to vote no. The airport can’t spend money on the city, he says, but they could use that money to improve other things, like making the airport easier to navigate. “In all practical purposes, it’s a joke, and it’s trivial, and insignificant,” he says. “And a complete waste of $14 million that could otherwise be going to better services and better passenger experiences at the airport, rather than a 14-second drive-by experience on Peña Boulevard.”

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But most airport and city officials disagree with Espinoza. The sign, they say, creates an iconic entryway for DIA. “Now that we do have this great airport, you want it to be something that, as people come in and out, they remember it,” Hancock says. “You want to be provocative, have something people will remember the airport by, something for those of us who live here to take pride in.”

They decided to incorporate advertising, Day says, because the sign pays for itself. And that, for Brooks, was the bottom line. “I don’t get into the aesthetics. Of course, I want my airport to look incredible and beautiful, but I don’t get into aesthetics. My main issue is, is it fiscally responsible?,” he says. “This sign is completely going to be paid for through advertisements and so…that’s my fiduciary responsibility.”


Project: Gate Expansion

Price Tag: $1.5 billion
Breaking Ground: Next year
Wrapping Up: End of 2021

While the new sign and the renovation have generated some controversy among city officials and residents, the need to increase passenger capacity has unilateral support. Denver City Council voted on November 13 to approve three contracts related to gate expansion. Thirty-nine new gates will be built across all three concourses, bringing the airport’s gate total to 150. With these new gates, says Heath Montgomery, DEN’s sr. public information officer, the airport’s capacity will grow from the original 50 million to 80 million.

This expansion will be the most extensive in the airport’s 22 years. But it’s more than likely that, in the next 15 years or so, it’ll be time to expand all over again. “We’ve already maxed out the main terminal as is, we know, coming down the road, we’re going to end up needing a train expansion, a possible concourse, and, obviously, we’re already talking about the new gates,” Espinoza says. “And at some point, we may need an extended terminal, or an additional terminal.”

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Project: Underground Train Expansion and Maintenance

Price Tag: $162 million (and growing)
Breaking Ground: TBD
Wrapping Up: 2020 is the goal

With the airport’s projected use far over the original capacity, it’s no surprise that DIA’s almost-23-year-old underground train system is due for an upgrade. In fact, airport officials (and passengers) were reminded of that on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (one of the busiest travel days of the year), when human drivers had to take over the usually-automated trains, following sensor glitches that resulted in delays. But, Montgomery says, that was an isolated incident; the train system is generally in excellent condition, with a better than 99 percent successful run rate since 2010.

City Council approved a $162 million contract on November 27 with the train’s original service provider, Bombardier, a Pittsburgh-based manufacturer. The seven-year contract will allow them to continue maintenance and operation services for the current system, which will include service to the control panels and sensors that resulted in the recent glitches. What isn’t included in the contract is the expansion of the train system. Airport officials plan to add ten additional cars to the line-up by 2020, growing the fleet to 41 strong, and increasing its capacity by 20 percent. As of publication date, there are no official contracts in place for adding those cars, which are still being designed, according to Montgomery. The goal is to bring a contract to City Council for approval in spring 2018.


As the airport continues to expand, it’s likely that its economic impact will grow, too. More airlines and concessions will create jobs and foster global connectivity, attracting business to the state. But does that mean billion dollar upgrades and renovations are inevitable?

Maybe so, says Schroeppel—but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he says, when you consider the returns on that investment. And while the nitty-gritty of how funds are spent tends to garner debate, that is one area where everyone—even Councilman Espinoza, who was wary of the high price tags—can agree: investing in the airport is just a smart move. “The airport enterprise is a huge revenue machine and job machine,” Espinoza says. “So, as far as that goes, there’s almost no amount of effort to make sure it’s successful that is too much.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated DIA’s gate expansion would cost approximately $1.5 million. The estimated cost is $1.5 billion. 5280 regrets the error. 

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