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Denver airport CEO outlines current, future solutions to increase in passengers

DIA was built to support 50 million annual passengers. This year, it could see 72.8 million.
Phil Washington
Posted at 11:49 AM, Oct 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-22 20:06:49-04

As more and more passengers come to rely on Denver International Airport, the airport is simultaneously working to support the increased volumes of travelers — something its CEO compared to living in a house during major renovations.

During a press conference Friday morning, airport CEO Phil Washington explained the current and future projects that will help alleviate some of the pressures around the airport. Denver City Council voted unanimously in mid-July to confirm Washington as the next CEO of the airport.

Watch the press conference in full below.

DEN CEO Phil Washington provides update on airport's recovery

The airport opened in 1995 — 26 years ago — to support 50 million passengers annually. By 2019, DEN — better known locally as DIA — was at 69 million annual passengers. Based on trends, Washington said he expects to see 72.8 million passengers this year. Now, the airport is preparing for Vision 100, which outlines the preparations needed in the next five to eight years to support 100 million passengers, Washington said. This is the first phase of Operation 2050, which is focusing on the possibility of 150 million passengers at DEN in 2050.

Washington said they have a lot of work to do to retrofit the airport.

"I like to say that this is the same airport, but more people," he said.

Based on passenger traffic since June, DEN was the third-busiest airport in the world, behind Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. While Washington said it's hard to put a finger on the exact reason for the enormous increase, it likely has something to do with the airport's location in the middle of the country. It is just two hours from the west coast and roughly three hours (give or take) to the east coast.

But whatever the reason, it's tied to, and negatively impacting, travelers who are finding long wait lines at security. Washington said he is in the terminal every day and sees the lines. He said he knows it's not ideal for those passengers and expressed his appreciation for their patience.

On Monday, Washington met with the TSA Administrator to discuss how they could improve the security process.

"One of the things that we need to do is build more infrastructure. Infrastructure meaning we need to build more lanes," he said. "And right now, at max, when we have all lanes open, we're at about 28 security lanes. With the full build out, if the council approves, we will go to 42 lanes. That will make a drastic difference."

In the meantime, he said they need to build out four additional lanes. Those four lanes will move 600 people through security every hour, he said. The TSA has already committed to staffing those extra lanes, he said, and are offering various types of bonuses to hire and keep employees. These lanes likely won't open until early next year.

"But I think what this boils down to is an understanding that there's going to be an impact as we continue this construction project," he said. "But this work is necessary for the increased volumes... It's like renovating your house while you're still living in it, because we're still operating. And we're building new infrastructure."

Washington said the airport plans to publish wait line times on its website and signs along the security lines to inform passengers how long of a wait they can expect, sort of like an amusement park.

Currently, 80% of passengers through DEN are traveling for leisure and 20% are for business. Typically, that split is more like 60-40, with 60% for leisure, Washington said. Experts are not sure when the business traveler numbers will start to tick up again.

Washington also addressed the issue of parking at DEN.

One of the reasons for some parking lots remaining closed is a lack of drivers, he explained. To solve this problem, he said they are proposing and planning to waive some requirements in the contracts that call for a commercial drivers license, and to hire individuals who can drive smaller vehicles to the parking lots while earning their CDL.

The Pikes Peak shuttle lot will temporarily open once again this weekend as DEN anticipates another busy weekend of travel.

Regarding the janitorial strike in early October, Washington said that the union and contractor are continuing negotiations.

To help curb the growing pains, DEN is currently undergoing multiple projects, the biggest being the Great Hall project and gate expansion project.

The building of the Great Hall was broken into three phases and the first, in the middle of the terminal, will open on Oct. 27. It will be operationally ready by Nov. 10.

In phase two, security on the north end will move from Level 5 to Level 6. This has already started and will be completed in the next 15 to 18 months. The final phase of the project involves moving south security to the north end on Level 6.

The gate expansion project includes 39 new gates — something that is "really indicative" of the increased passenger volumes at the airport, Washington said. Even with these new additions, airlines are still asking for more. Those 39 new gates will open in the next six to eight months.

Washington also recognized the problem in August, when trains had to run at reduced capacity due to a mechanical issue, creating hours-long delays for travelers. DEN does not have walkways between security and the gates. The repairs took about 10 hours.

"So what I've directed is for us to put out what I call a problem statement, or request for information, to the private sector on how we can resolve this issue," he said, noting it will go out early next week.

He called the incident "unprecedented" and said it was the first and only time that has happened at the airport.

"I think we have to understand and do a cost-benefit analysis to say, do you spend $200 or $300 million to do a walkway or a tunnel or something like that? You have to do a cost-benefit analysis to say, you've had this happen once in 26 years. Do you spend that money to solve something that is like the 100-year flood?"

Washington said he wants to ask passengers who plan to travel through DEN in the next few months to stay patient through the growing pains.

"We’re doing everything we possibly can to reduce wait times in security lines and to open up off-site parking lots and to make sure concessions are open and restrooms are clean," he said. "Increased passenger volumes has had an impact on how airports operate. That is undeniable. I think having said that, we are also going to take advantage of these challenges by creating opportunities for young people in the aviation industry and engaging them in this industry."

Passengers headed to the airport should continue to arrive at DEN two hours ahead of their flight. This will be even more important during the holidays, Washington said.