Denver International Airport: The high life!

With passenger numbers hitting an all-time high, new facilities being added and more on the way, these are good times for Denver International Airport, writes Joe Bates.

In just under 30 years, Denver International Airport (DEN) has grown from being a mid-sized US airport to one of the busiest, most ambitious and envied airports in the world due to the huge plot of land it occupies, giving it ample space to expand and grow.

DEN, whose tent shaped Jeppesen Terminal arguably makes it one of the most instantly recognisable airports on the planet, replaced Stapleton as Denver’s gateway to the world on February 28, 1995, and handled 32 million passengers in its first full year of operations.

By last year that figure had more than doubled to a record 77.8 million passengers (+12.3%), cementing DEN’s status as the sixth busiest airport in the world and third busiest in the US after Hartsfield-Jackson (ATL) and Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW).

The continued upturn in traffic – DEN also ranked fourth in the world for aircraft movements in 2023 – means that the mile high city’s airport is potentially on target to reach its goal of welcoming 100 million passengers annually by as early as 2027.

Up until last year the airport had never handled more than 70 million passengers per annum, so what factors are driving DEN’s traffic growth and is the Vision 100 target of handling 100mppa in 2027 still realistic?

Denver International Airport CEO, Phil Washington, says: “This is a fluid industry, and things can change at any time. We continue to plan for 100 million annual passengers as soon as 2027, but if we reach that in 2030, then we’ll be that much more ahead. Just this year we expect to serve more than 80 million passengers.”

Airlines

DEN’s two largest carriers, United and Southwest, set all-time passenger records in 2023. United served more than 36 million passengers during the year and captured 46.8% of total DEN market share. Southwest captured 30.9% of total DEN market share with its annual volumes exceeding 24 million passengers.

DEN’s third-largest carrier, Frontier, served more than 7.5 million passengers during the year, accounting for 9.6% of total market share and the carrier’s highest volume since 2019.

Although 2023 now also ranks as DEN’s busiest year ever in terms of origination and destination (O&D) traffic, the growth was just 0.1% over 2019, the previous busiest year for O&D passengers. Connecting passengers propelled DEN’s impressive growth in 2023 on an increase of 35.7% as compared to 2019.

The continued upward trajectory in passenger traffic leaves Washington in no doubt that the airport needs to ensure that DEN’s infrastructure can continue to accommodate future growth.

“Last year was an extraordinary one for growth at DEN and I am proud of the airport team for the ways that we have adjusted our strategies, invested in new technologies and worked to meet the moment while also continuing to prepare for the future,” he says.

“It is incumbent upon us to ensure the airport’s infrastructure can continue to accommodate the growth we expect and that’s why our Vision 100 strategic plan is focused on preparing the airport to serve 100 million annual passengers and serves as a blueprint to align DEN’s decision-making and accountability.”

New infrastructure

DEN’s Vision 100 strategic plan outlines guiding principles focused on Sustainability and Resiliency, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Accessibility, Operational Excellence, and Enhancing the Customer Experience.

As part of the ongoing upgrade of the airport, DEN recently celebrated the opening of its new West Security Checkpoint as part of its $2.1 billion Great Hall Program, which is set for completion by the end of 2027.

Next up will be the completion of a new East Security Checkpoint, which is expected to open at the end of 2025 and will provide another 17 screening lanes with advanced technology.

“The Great Hall Program is a three-phased project that modernises our Jeppesen Terminal and increases and improves safety and security,” enthuses Washington.

“The first two phases are complete and added new airline check-in facilities for our largest airline partners, new restrooms and passenger conveyances as well as our new West Security Checkpoint.

“The Completion Phase is already underway and will add a second security checkpoint, new facilities to welcome international passengers, check-in facilities for our remaining airline partners and the Center of Equity and Excellence in Aviation. Both of the checkpoints have been relocated by moving up one level.”

With regards to the development of non-aero facilities on the airport site, Washington says: “We’re fortunate that early visionaries provided such a large facility/land for DEN as even if we fully expand to 12 possible runways – basically we double in size, we still have more than 16,000 acres of commercial land available.

“In fact, DEN has the largest commercial development opportunity connected to any airport in the US. We’re now bringing land to the market in seven distinct districts of varying sizes and applications.”

DEN’s strategic development plan prioritises seven commercial districts that are situated on existing or planned regional infrastructure and create synergies with geographic amenities and airport features that will benefit development.

While DEN continuously reviews all commercially developable property for market potential, priority is placed on development that will catalyse the regional economy, support transit-oriented sites, leverage infrastructure investments and maximise placemaking opportunities.

Looking more long-term into the future

Such has been the upward trajectory in traffic levels at DEN that Washington admits that the airport is now looking at growth beyond Vision 100.

“We’re realising our horizon may be different than originally conceived. We need to plan now for life beyond Vision 100, and we’ve begun to discuss a new reality for DEN that we’re calling Operation 2045 [OP45],” he says.

“In 1995, 50 million annual passengers travelled through DEN. In 2027, 100-plus million annual passengers are forecasted to travel through DEN. The airport will turn 50 years old in 2045, and with that comes an even greater responsibility to lay a clear path for generations to come.

“By 2045, DEN will be serving 120 million-plus passengers. We recognise that we must do more to maintain our existing assets while expanding to accommodate growth. With OP45, we’re laying the foundation for needed infrastructure expansion work that will prepare DEN to successfully reach its half-century mark.

“Vision 100 is the first phase, but we are not stopping there. We are working now to understand and plan for the megatrends and innovations that will impact our industry over the next 20 years so that we can formulate the best possible strategies and actions.

“DEN is Colorado’s top economic engine. This is something that we don’t take lightly. We are focused on ensuring the economic health of this airport now and in the future as we recognised that our business partners and our customers depend on us.

“We will continue to share more about OP45, and the milestones we achieve while preparing DEN for the inevitable future of major growth.”

Sustainable development

Approximately 26% of DEN’s ground handling and support vehicles are powered with alternative fuels such as compressed natural gas (CNG), and its fleet management division currently provides CNG testing services to about 300 vehicles operated by tenant airlines.

Last summer, DEN completed the capping of 64 oil and gas wells across the airport site as part of a $12.5 million programme that includes decommissioning all of DEN’s 38 tank battery locations.

According to Washington, the closure of the wells will allow DEN to grow and move forward in a way that’s “conscientious, sustainable, and smart” while avoiding the risk of methane leaks and other related pollutants, while conserving water, resources and energy.

In March, DEN was awarded $300,000 in federal funding for an Electrification Master Plan to help reduce airport emissions through increased use of cleaner energy. This funding is part of a nearly $130 million package for various Colorado-based projects included in the federal funding bills for fiscal year 2024.

“Our Electrification Master Plan underscores our Vision 100 commitment to become the greenest airport in the world as we grow to 100 million annual passengers,” says Washington.

“This federal funding will allow DEN to increase our electrical capacity while maintaining high levels of reliability and resiliency.

“Electrification represents one of the most critical decarbonisation pathways available, which will replace emissions associated with facilities and vehicles with clean electricity. This is particularly important at airports, considering their size and the number of unique fossil fuel use cases requiring electrification.”

The federal funding will help DEN complete a study of how to build an inventory of available electrical capacity across its 52.4 square mile campus, develop projections for future electrical demand by use and location, and create a roadmap and action plan to ensure that electrical power is available when and where it is needed.

“As Colorado’s largest economic engine, it is imperative that DEN leads and models the transition to cleaner power supplies,” says Washington.

“This project will serve as a model for proactive utility planning for Colorado and throughout the aviation industry while also leading to reductions in DEN’s own emissions. We’re grateful to Colorado’s congressional delegation for their efforts in securing these funds.”

The airport also recently celebrated Earth Day by sharing information about its sustainability wins related to its historic Energy Performance Contract (EPC) project.

The EPC project is guided not only by Vision 100 but also by the airport’s comprehensive Energy Plan developed in 2018. The Energy Plan aims to ensure that DEN’s growth is powered by energy that is low-carbon, cost-effective, reliable and resilient, while solidifying
DEN as an international sustainability leader.

“This initiative, embedded within our Vision 100 plan, is proof of DEN’s dedication to environmental stewardship,” adds Phil Washington.

“The strides we have made under this EPC attest to our continued pursuit to lead the aviation industry toward a greener future. With these energy and cost savings and enhanced operational performance, we are moving closer to fulfilling our promise to become one of the most sustainable airports in the world.”

DEN partnered with values-aligned McKinstry, a national construction and energy services firm, with a regional office in Colorado, to implement the project through the Colorado Energy Office.

The project scope includes replacing florescent lights with LED on over 38,000 fixtures, water savings flush valve and fixture retrofits on over 1000 toilets, urinals, faucets, and shower heads, an upgrade to the energy management control systems in Concourses A and C, Airport Office Building and North Terminal, as well as the airport’s Central Utility Plant cooling tower metering upgrade.

Once construction is complete, a three-year period of measurement and verification will follow to validate the ongoing energy and water savings.

Since construction began, DEN has seen major sustainability and conservation impacts, including an equivalent utility cost savings of over $1 million per year from a reduction in water use, as well as electricity, gas, and sewer use.

But is DEN ready for Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) and all the future physical and logistical challenges its adoption will bring to the industry? It should probably come as no surprise to you learn this forward thinking gateway is already on top of things.

“We are actively working with stakeholders to determine what role we can play to accelerate SAF adoption in Colorado,” says Washington. “We want to be sure the DEN is prepared for when SAF becomes more available. We have ambitious goals, and SAF is part of our future.”

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