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A United Airlines plane at Denver International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport)

Denver International Airport has seen explosive growth over the past year and a half into international markets, with airlines offering a host of new routes to such destinations as London, Paris, Zurich and Panama City.

And there are signs that this expansion hasn’t been for naught. It’s helped to establish the Mile High City as more of an international hub, though it still lacks the population to support global point-to-point travel.  

“We’ve never had this much international growth happen in one year, ever,” said Laura Jackson, the airport’s vice president of air service. “We are trying to absorb that now and make sure all of that is successful.”

So how does the airport land these new flights? What kind of incentives are offered to secure the routes? And — what everyone wants to know — which destinations might be next?

To find out, The Colorado Sun spoke with DIA’s top officials in charge of expanding flight service:

An Icelandair plane at Denver International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport)

Explosion of international destinations

Since September 2017, nine new international routes from DIA have been added.

With those new routes have come the addition of airlines Edelweiss Air, Norwegian, Copa Airlines, Cayman Airways and WestJet.

Here’s a complete list of the routes added since September 2017 and when they launched or are scheduled to begin:

  • London-Gatwick (Norwegian) – September 2017
  • Panama City (Copa Airlines) – December 2017
  • Cozumel (United Airlines) – December 2017
  • Calgary (WestJet) – March
  • London-Heathrow (United Airlines) – March
  • Paris (Norwegian) – April
  • Calgary (Frontier Airlines) – May
  • Zurich (Edelweiss) – June
  • Grand Cayman (Cayman Airways) – March 2019

It’s important to note that the rise in international services stems from connections. Though metro Denver is growing at at a breakneck pace, the region doesn’t yet have the ability to sustain point-to-point, long-haul travel.

“For almost all of our international routes, we need feed (connecting passengers) in one direction or another because our international market size is simply not large enough to fill an airplane,” Jackson said.

That means there aren’t a planeload of people every day taking flights just from Denver to London on any of the three carriers that shuttle passengers between the cities. They are headed beyond.

Take British Airways service to London’s Heathrow Airport, for instance. Passengers traveling there from Denver will most likely be connecting into the airline’s bank of routes elsewhere in the world.

United’s daily flight to Tokyo consists of only about 20 percent of people heading to the Japanese hub. Many more are heading to another destination in Asia, including Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Bangkok, Thailand; or Manila, The Philippines.

Of the passengers on Lufthansa’s Denver-to-Munich flight, 11 percent are traveling just to the German city alone. That point-to-point travel rate is more like 10 percent on the carrier’s Denver-to-Frankfurt route.

“Fares really have to make sense, too,” said Ben Marwitz, senior manager of air-service development at DIA. “You can have really high market size, but absolutely just super-low fares via connecting options that don’t make it smart economically.”

Simply put: The international flights from Denver are cheap enough that someone can justify flying direct to, say, London, instead of stopping over in Chicago; Newark, New Jersey; or Washington, D.C.

As of Tuesday, DIA had 26 nonstop routes to international destinations, some of which are served by multiple airlines.

An Edelweiss Air plane at Denver International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport)

How the routes are doing

For the most part, there’s been a strong percentage of seats filled — known as a the “load factor” — on the planes servicing the international routes.

That’s a sign that they are profitable for the airlines offering them and aren’t going away anytime soon. It also suggests the city could support more international growth.

The one hiccup in the new routes is Norwegian’s Paris-to-Denver connection, which quickly went from twice weekly year-round to a seasonal service.

“The bookings were just not there, they felt, to sustain a flight in the first winter season,” Jackson said. “So, of course we’re disappointed, but we understand that they have to make those decisions.”

Jackson pointed to the lack of connecting Norwegian flights in Paris as one possible reason the route has faltered.

Summertime bookings and interest in the Paris service, though, was high. Between April, when Norwegian launched the route, and June, about 82 percent of seats were filled.

(The route is scheduled to resume in April.)

When Denver’s airport does lose a route or sees decreased flight frequency, it can be difficult for that service to return. Officials pointed to the decision by Lufthansa to end its Denver-to-Munich flight in 2008.

“For us to go back and try to repitch Lufthansa took many years — to say, ‘Please restart a route that was already unsuccessful.’ But we were able to do that, ” Jackson said.

The flight resumed in 2016 and has seen a load factor of about 82 percent since.

United has had a lot of success with service between Denver and Heathrow. It’s one of three airlines flying to the U.K., along with Norwegian (which flies into London’s Gatwick Airport) and British Airways (which also flies daily into Heathrow).

United’s Denver-Heathrow service ended for the season in October. It is set to resume in March.

A Norwegian plane at Denver International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport)

How the airport lands a new airlines/route

Luring a new international carrier or route to Denver is about selling the city, the airport says.

“We’re constantly talking to the carriers, building business cases presenting data,” Jackson said. “It’s a very data-driven process — and, really, what we are selling is Denver. We’re selling the population here that travels, the businesses that are investing here.”

Incentives are also part of efforts to draw new service to the Mile High City.

DIA offers airlines an incentive, refunding a portion of their cost to operate at the airport, up to $30 per passenger for flights to Europe or Asia, or up to $20 for international flights in the Americas.

(An airline’s refund per passenger cannot exceed it operational costs at the airport.)

Also on the table is as much as $2 million in marketing funds, depending on the frequency and location of the route.

For airlines launching service to a destination not yet served from DIA, the incentives can total no more than $6 million and can last for no more than two years. Airlines adding service to a destination that already has service from DIA can receive incentives for up to a year.

MORE: Read more about Denver International Airport’s air service incentive program

The Boeing 787 “game-changer”

One reason that more international routes and airlines have popped up in Denver is Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.

The state-of-the-art aircraft has fewer seats than long-haul jets of the past that also had more range and lower operating costs. That makes a route such as United’s Denver-to-Tokyo service, which began in 2013, viable.

Norwegian is using the 787 for its service to Gatwick and Paris. United is also using the 787 on its seasonal Heathrow route.

“Thats a game-changer for Denver, that aircraft,” said Jackson.

A United Airlines 787 at Denver International Airport. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Another fuel-efficient plane that could have more of a footprint at DIA is the sleek new Airbus A350. It, too, has fewer seats and can fly long-haul routes.

Lufthansa recently began using one of its A350s on the carrier’s Denver-to-Munich route, signaling success and long-term investment in the service.

“It’s an opportunity cost they could put anywhere else and they chose Denver,” said Marwitz, the senior manager of air-service.

Before the latest generation of planes, many international routes simply weren’t economical.

“The 787 is allowing (international) access to places like Austin, Texas, it’s allowing access to New Orleans, it’s allowing access to Indianapolis,” said Michael Boyd, president of the Evergreen-based aviation consulting firm Boyd Group International. “If 10 years ago you said Indianapolis would have access to Europe, it would be time for a drug test.”

People wait for passengers to leave customs at Denver International Airport in July 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

What might be next

Now, the moment that all you international fliers have been waiting for: Which global destination from Denver might be next?

It’s hard to pin down exactly which routes are most likely to be on tap for DIA, but we can certainly make some educated guesses.

“Things are constantly shifting,” Jackson said. “Something might be close, we might think it’s one to two years away, and then some geopolitical issue happens. Like Turkish Airlines — we had really been talking to them and in really serious discussions with them, and then just violence in Turkey. Our traffic to Turkey dropped by 40 percent.”

Officials have a list of about two dozen international destinations that could work for Denver.

“We’re the top U.S. market without service to Amsterdam,” Jackson noted as an example.

DIA is also one of the top markets without service to Dublin, New Zealand and Beijing. It’s also one the top markets that doesn’t have an air route to the Middle East, Africa and/or India.

“We think, at some juncture, Air China will be here from probably Beijing,” Boyd said. “A Chinese carrier is almost a slam dunk to come here.”

There are also constant rumors United will add a new international connection, but the airline on Tuesday declined to hint toward any specifics.

“Our Denver hub is growing and we’re always looking for additional opportunities to connect more customers to the destinations they want to go, both domestically and internationally,” said Erin Benson, a United spokeswoman.

What’s one factor that could slow future growth?

“We have a bug in the ointment: Fuel prices are going up,” Boyd said.

Updated 11 a.m. Nov. 14, 2018: This story was updated to correct the surname of Ben Marwitz, senior air service development manager at Denver International Airport.


The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul