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A crowd of people at an airport with an american flag.
A view of Jeppesen Terminal on June 30, 2023. The Jeppesen Terminal, also known as The Great Hall, is in phase two of a three-phase renovation plan, which began in 2020 in order to accommodate up to 100 million travelers per year. (Photo by Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s not an illusion created by the long TSA lines, heavy construction, packed trams and general travel anxiety — Denver International Airport really is getting more crowded. 

According to passenger traffic reports, June ranked as the busiest month ever recorded at DIA. During that month, the airport served 6,769,608 passengers, topping the previous monthly record set in July 2019 by more than 35,000 passengers. That number includes all passengers traveling through the airport: international and domestic, inbound and outbound.

“This confirms what we’ve known all along — we are growing really fast, and that we need to keep up with that growth,” said Stephanie Figueroa, public information officer for DIA. 

DIA had one of the quickest returns to pre-pandemic levels of travel, in part due to its central location and vast domestic network. While all airports were affected by travel restrictions during 2020 and 2021, airports that relied on international traffic took longer to come back (nonstop flights from Denver to Tokyo didn’t resume until March of this year). 

DIA’s network of nonstop domestic flights to 45 states makes it the second-largest domestic travel hub in the country, a fact which bolstered its numbers as people started traveling again.

However, it’s not just a story of pre- and post-pandemic travel. In November, DIA completed its $2.3 billion gate expansion program, which added 39 gates to the airport’s three terminals and expanded its capacity by 30%. More gates means more flights, which means more passengers. 

On top of that, Denver is a growing city, Figueroa pointed out. “More people live here now, which means more people are flying out of DIA than ever before.” 

As of May, almost 30 million passengers had made their way through DIA, making it the third busiest airport in the United States, behind Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta (40.1 million passengers) and Dallas-Fort Worth (31 million passengers). By the end of the record-setting month of June, that number jumped to 36.5 million at DIA, setting an all-time high for the first half of the year. 

Figueroa doesn’t want travelers to panic when they see the numbers. According to her, it’s all part of the plan. Sort of. 

When CEO Phil Washington introduced his Vision 100 plan — a strategic plan for DIA to accommodate 100 million annual passengers — in September 2021, projections showed the airport reaching that number in 2032. “But now we’re realizing, it’s probably going to happen sooner than that,” Figueroa said. “We are on the right path, but we need to speed things up.”

Part of that acceleration means hiring more people. On Wednesday, DIA held a job fair in conjunction with the Denver Office of Economic Development. Over 450 job seekers showed up for 47 employers across the airport, from airlines to concessionaires to rental car companies. It was the largest city-sponsored job fair since the pandemic, and “in the top three” of all time, Figueroa said. 

The rush of the airport

One of the bigger strains passengers experience at DIA is TSA. To mitigate long security lines, DIA recently introduced the DEN Reserve system, run by CLEAR, which allows travelers to create a free reservation with TSA during a given time slot. 

The program is similar to systems at Seattle-Tacoma and Orlando International Airport, which CLEAR also runs. These reservation systems help mitigate long lines by ensuring passengers will make it to their terminal on time, deterring them from lining up early and causing further stress. Figueroa said that DIA is working on opening a fourth security checkpoint in February. 

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Along with the gate expansion project, DIA is also in phase two of its three-phase Great Hall project to expand Jeppesen Terminal — the main entry terminal where ticketing and security are — for the anticipated 100 million passengers. According to DIA’s project website, Jeppesen Terminal was built in 1995 to accommodate 50 million passengers per year. The year after it opened, it hosted just over 32 million. But the terminal surpassed that 50 million mark in 2008, and the number has continued growing — with the exception of 2020 — every year since.

“It’s tough. It is busy. We see that and we know it’s a pain point for a lot of customers. Which is why we’re working on …” Figueroa paused, “everything.”

Parker Yamasaki covers arts and culture at The Colorado Sun as a Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow and former Dow Jones News Fund intern. She has freelanced for the Chicago Reader, Newcity Chicago, and DARIA, among other publications,...