It’s not your imagination. Denver International Airport is busier than ever. And there’s no sign of things slowing down.
On Friday, 227,497 passengers were expected to pass through the airport, one of three Fridays in July forecast as candidates to be the busiest-ever day at DIA.
We won’t actually know how many people passed through the airport on those dates for a few more months. But there was only a difference of a few hundred passengers projected between the three Fridays.
The Colorado Sun spent nine hours at Denver International Airport on Friday, talking to people checking in, to folks visiting the Mile High City for the first time and to the workers behind the scenes making it all possible, to learn about the effect of the rush and what’s in store for the future of one of the state’s most powerful economic engines.
While conventional wisdom holds that the busiest air travel days are those closest to big holiday, like Christmas or Thanksgiving, in truth it is in summer that the traveler counts really climb. Summer vacationers combine with the normal number of business travelers criss-crossing the nation to create a new level of busy.
It’s a crush that passengers can see, but that also has an impact out of their view, in the control towers high above the concourses and the underground highway where bags are rushed to gates.
“It has been pretty busy today,” said Samantha Galland, who was heading to a family reunion in Houston from her home in Colorado Springs. “There’s way more people in the hallways.”
The busiest-day-ever record for the nation’s fifth-busiest airport is not expected to stand for long. In fact, by next summer it’s likely to fall. DIA has been blowing past passenger milestones every month since it opened in 1995, replacing the hemmed-in Stapleton International Airport closer to central Denver.
The previous busiest day ever for DIA was recorded in 2018. That record is expected to be broken 80 times this summer.
“There’s a lot of folks around here who are constantly looking at those growth trends and trying to plan for it with capital improvement projects,” said Bruce Goetz, the director of operations at the airport. “We’re always trying to meet the demand. It’s a good problem to have.”
Now, nearly 25 years after the airport opened, the hub is preparing for an explosion in growth with a $650 million renovation of its “Great Hall,” $1.5 billion effort to add 40 more gates and the $93 million widening of Peña Boulevard. However, with budget overruns and the potential for yearslong delays in the Great Hall makeover, the airport and passengers — not to mention pilots and air-service crews on the tarmac — will have to contend with bigger crowds and less space to move them around.
The morning rush is well underway, with vehicles speeding along Peña Boulevard. Some passengers are bleary-eyed, others are getting a few extra moments of sleep snuggled into the shoulders of their drivers.
Inside the Jeppesen Terminal, the airport’s iconic, tent-covered 1.5 million square foot space, the real action is unfolding, with droves of people snaking their way through security in what appears to be a never-ending flow of passengers.
One person not getting on a flight today: Tracy Crawford, of Brownsburg, Indiana, who is resting in a chair by the Frontier check-in counter. She and her husband were in Colorado celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary, but missed their flight home after getting held up in lines on the way to their gate.
“So, we’re stuck here until tomorrow,” she said, surrounded by bags.
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But Crawford wasn’t really fazed. She said they would likely head back to the city and enjoy another day in their first vacation without kids in a decade.
Heading to Boston was Jeremy Georges and eight family members, including a pack of children, who were parked with a mountain of suitcases in the JetBlue check-in line. They’d been on a trip rafting the Colorado River.
Around them other passengers camped out in chairs — lounging with their shoes off and feet up on bags, doing their makeup — or trying to find their way around white walls doing a poor job at hiding the construction behind them.
“Does anyone know where Frontier is?” said one woman hurrying around the arrival vehicle drop-off. Another woman was looking for where arriving passengers were getting off trains from the terminal, caught in a sea of roadblocks.
Patricia Pertusot was resting a leg on the baggage carousel waiting to start her trip from Chicago, to visit a friend and do some hiking. She noticed the construction and crowds, finding it hard to navigate Denver airport even though she’s been here many times before.
As for the packed train from the terminal? “I was uncomfortable,” she said.
But drawing plenty of smiles was Amber, who stood waiting for her boyfriend with a large poop-emoji balloon. “I haven’t seen him in six months,” she said, declining to give her last name.
By 9:45 a.m., all of those passengers snaking through security were on planes preparing to depart. There were 14 planes lined up to take off on runway 25 and roar toward the Rocky Mountains in the west.
Goetz, who is in charge of making sure that everything from lines through security to runway operations run smoothly, says preparing for Friday’s crush of passengers has been a long, incremental process.
“I have been here for about five years now,” he said. “Five years ago, if we had 60,000 through screening we were all going ‘wow.’”
Then, about two years ago, that bumped up to about 70,000 through the security checkpoints. Now, including Friday, 80,000 or more through a security checkpoint doesn’t even get his heart racing.
“I wasn’t panicked at all coming in today, coming in and seeing we have 80,000 passengers coming through,” he said. “I just know we knew it was coming. We’ve been planning for it.”
(The rest of the passengers at the airport on Friday were traveling to Denver or passed through on connecting flights.)
The key has been making small and large adjustments frequently. That includes things like moving planters around where they might be getting in the way of lines, or forming a staff of people dedicated to ushering passengers to the checkpoints with the shortest waits. There are even experts employed by DIA dedicated to signage.
Sometimes the preparations don’t work. Airport officials find that passengers will walk past signs helping point them in the right direction and end up getting lost. And all of the construction turning the terminal into a kind of maze hasn’t made the work of airport operations staff — or the passenger experience, for that matter — easier.
“Making the right turns at the right places can be difficult sometimes,” said Dave Dalton, assistant director of terminal operations.
The challenge is keeping the pace of change up with the increase in traffic.
“We can keep building more concourses,” Goetz said. “We can keep building more runways. The thing about it is, and our 53 square miles, we’ll be able to continue to accommodate that demand for some time with all the different things we can do. … No other large metro area in the United States can do what Denver’s doing. You look at Seattle, L.A. — they’re packed. Portland can’t grow. The New York airports, there’s just no land.”
There’s kind of a blank canvas of space to get that done — the airport’s 53 square miles is more than double the area of Manhattan — but the question is: Can construction be completed quickly enough?
A United Airlines Boeing 777 pushes back from its gate en route to Houston on Friday, July 19, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
Perched high above the concourses are a group of operations staff who choreograph the comings and goings of thousands of aircraft taking off and landing at Denver’s airport each day. On Friday, more than 2,000 planes were expected to pass through the hub.
With a 360-degree view of the sprawling airfield and hunched over a set of computer screens and camera feeds from the places beyond their sight, these are the workers who strive to keep the passenger increases, in the form of more flights, from causing chaos.
That means keeping track, for instance, of inbound international flights to make sure there are gates available to handle them and staff on hand to process them through customs.
“On a normal day through customs at the peak time we would have between 800 and 1,000 passengers,” said supervisor Randy Scheihing. “Here we’re going to be looking at between 1,000 and 1,500.”
Friday’s international travelers included Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and her entourage on a long-haul China Airlines plane, which added a bit more complexity to the mix.
With all of the construction at the airport, the work of Scheihing and his team is that much harder. “It’s busy inside with construction,” Goetz said.” It’s busy outside with construction.”
Taxiways are not as wide because of the work to add gates, and at least one runway is down for summer maintenance.
“Now your complexities have gone really high,” he said. “It adds to the sensitivity of people working, the coordination. We see the anxiety level of people climb.”
But Scheihing says he and his coworkers have decades of experience and are so comfortable with each other they can anticipate how they will react to situations. “We work as a very coordinated unit,” he said.
Droves of passengers snake through a line for Denver International Airport’s south security checkpoint on Friday, July 19, 2019. The line was so long it spanned past several baggage carousels. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
As the wave of international flights begin to arrive — two from Munich, another from London — it signals the start of the afternoon rush. What had been three relatively quiet concourses and a terminal without any lines turned into an all-out madhouse.
Passengers were snaking around the corner past baggage carousels waiting up to 45 minutes to get through the security checkpoint, according to the airport’s wait-time monitors. But the long line was moving swiftly as airport employees urged people to head to other checkpoints or check-in counters with shorter waits — the hub’s efforts to deal with the record-breaking travel at work.
Scores of passengers were also lined up to check in for their flights, and a sea of people were getting on and off, on and off the underground concourse trains.
Paul and Jackie Hitchins apparently missed the crowds as they waited to board a sleek Lufthansa A350-900 to Munich, the massive aircraft looming behind them. The couple from Parker were heading to Switzerland for a river cruise.
They said they remembered flying into DIA back in 1995, soon after it opened. The hub has changed so much since then. The airport now has a commuter-train connection to downtown Denver, a hotel, and businesses and homes have started to creep toward its edge.
But the two were surprised that Friday was expected to be the busiest day ever at the airport.
“I wouldn’t have realized it unless you told me,” Paul said.
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