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Planes parked at Denver International Airport. (Handout)

United Airlines slashed its flight schedule out of Denver in half. The number of people making their way through the airport’s security checkpoints last week dropped by more than 94% compared to the same stretch last year. And DIA’s normally jam-packed concourse trains have been so empty lately that officials haven’t had to worry about social distancing guidelines being broken. 


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Denver International Airport, in the age of the new coronavirus, has become little more than an airplane parking lot.

In fact, there are more than 50 aircraft — including massive Boeing 787 Dreamliners and Boeing 777s belonging to United — indefinitely parked on deicing pads, waiting for the pandemic to ease so they can take to the skies again. There is room for at least 100 more planes.

“It is an eerie sight in the airport,” DIA spokeswoman Emily Williams said, “for sure.” 

The global airline industry has been hard hit by COVID-19, the disease caused by new coronavirus. And Denver International Airport is no exception.

Considered Colorado’s economic engine, in its dormant state the airport is symbolic of the state of the state: grounded.

The airport’s stall comes after a breakneck pace of growth during which passenger records were shattered seemingly every month. Concourse expansions are underway, as is a redesign of the terminal. 

United Airlines planes parked at Denver International Airport. (Provided by Erik Conerty)

July 19 was the airport’s busiest day ever, with more than 227,000 people passing through the hub, including connecting and arriving passengers.

From March 30 to April 3, just 22,255 people made their way through the security checkpoints. During the same period of 2019, 391,376 passed through the Transportation Security Administration’s screening stations.

The airport has left just one security checkpoint open, closing the others because there simply isn’t enough demand. Recent photos show the normally busy maze of ropes funneling passengers toward an array of beeping and whirring machines empty.

Denver International Airport’s near-empty security maze on Thursday, April 2, 2020. (Nic Morrey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A passenger who flew out of the airport last week joked that it seemed there were more pilots than passengers. His flight to Cincinnati, Ohio, had fewer than 10 total passengers.

“We probably won’t be celebrating any of those busiest-day-ever milestones for a while,” Williams said.

The airport is expecting its revenue to be way down as a result of the plummeting passenger numbers. It relies a great deal on parking fees, and recent photos of the hub’s lots have shown them, like the security mazes, near-empty. 

It’s not just the airport that’s hurting, though. The three airlines that call Denver a hub also are struggling, too. 

United’s overall capacity will be down 68% in April, including a 95% reduction in its international flight schedule. 

Frontier Airlines, based in Denver, said it is decreasing its total flight capacity by 90% in April. 

Frontier Airlines planes parked at Denver International Airport. (Provided by Erik Conerty)

And Southwest Airlines will operate only about 2,000 flights per day across its route network between May 3 and June 5. That represents roughly a 50% reduction in its pre-coronavirus schedule. 

Southwest and Frontier said they didn’t have Denver-specific numbers on their reduction in service.

Frontier says it’s hoping to increase its capacity to as much as 35 percent in May and 100 percent in the latter half of the year. But Denver just extended its stay-at-home order until at least April 30. Although the airport is exempt, people appear to be steering clear of DIA.

KFC, Root Down and six other eateries inside the airport cut 391 workers last month, according to the state Department of Labor and Employment. The companies had filed a federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification on March 26 and said they would close their facilities temporarily because of COVID-19. But some will remain open, just with fewer staff.

“We certainly anticipate to see a significant decline in revenue this year,” Williams said. “We won’t know what that impact will be until we know how long this is going to go on.” 

Staff writer Tamara Chuang contributed to this report.

Updated on Monday, April 13, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect that some of the restaurants at Denver International Airport that have laid off workers will remain open even thought the state’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification indicated they are shutting down.

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....