DENVER — Federico Peña was the mayor of Denver when planning began to expand then Stapleton Airport over Interstate 70 into the Rocky Mountain Aresenal National Wildlife Refuge. But that idea didn’t fly.
“We realized it wasn't feasible for lots of reasons, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal was very contaminated. Adams County was opposing the expansion,” Peña recalled.
Thus began the long painstaking process to move the airport east to its current location, including annexing land from Adams County.
“My contribution as mayor was to have the vision and, if i can say, the audacity to change our minds,” Peña said.
But the final build out and burdens that came with it were soon passed on to Denver’s next mayor Wellington Webb.
“My administration built 80% of the airport until it opened,” Webb said.
When Webb took over the project in 1991, his first job would be to negotiate a lease with the largest carrier— United Airlines.
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“After getting a lease signed with them, we had to do our first order at the airport— $267 million dollars to put in the baggage system, the famous banking system United Airlines wanted,” Webb said.
The complex system, necessary to move luggage over a mile to the gates, would lead to delays in opening the airport. When that first flight was finally able to land on Feburary 28, 1995, it was 16 months behind schedule and $2 billion over budget.
But it was still an exciting day for the passengers on the first flight into Denver's new airport – United Airlines Flight 1474 from Colorado Springs – including Denver7 anchor Anne Trujillo.
“It was just about 15 minutes and the whole time people were screaming and having a good time on the flight,” Anne reported that day.
Of course, there have been some bumps in DIA’s journey in the decades since. The March 2003 blizzard tore a hole in the airport’s iconic white fabric tents and shut down Peña Boulevard and the airport for nearly two days. The Great Hall renovation that began in 2018 has seen delays and budget overruns. Construction at the airport is a constant.
But Mayors Webb and Peña are proud of their work and what the airport has provided to Colorado.
“Denver International Airport is a winner. 100 million people will be by going through there by 2045,” Webb said.
DIA now employs 37,000 people. It’s expanding the number of gates, amenities and security lanes, and has a $36 billion economic impact on Colorado.
“There were always challenges along the way, but we never gave up,” Peña said.