A world class facility with the flexibility to change

Posted: 22 February 2010 | Kim Day, Aviation Manager, Denver International Airport | No comments yet

February 27, 1995. It was called Push Night. A winter storm threatened and at Denver’s worn and venerable Stapleton Airport, the airlines had cut back flight schedules and were keeping skeleton crews. In the evening dusk, lines of tugs hauled equipment northward in the largest logistical movement, outside of a full-scale military mobilisation, of the time. The last flight out of Stapleton left at 9:00 p.m. that evening, a flight bound for London Gatwick. Then Stapleton’s runway lights were turned off, ending an era in Denver aviation that began in 1929.

February 27, 1995. It was called Push Night. A winter storm threatened and at Denver’s worn and venerable Stapleton Airport, the airlines had cut back flight schedules and were keeping skeleton crews. In the evening dusk, lines of tugs hauled equipment northward in the largest logistical movement, outside of a full-scale military mobilisation, of the time. The last flight out of Stapleton left at 9:00 p.m. that evening, a flight bound for London Gatwick. Then Stapleton’s runway lights were turned off, ending an era in Denver aviation that began in 1929.

The following morning at 6:00 a.m., on February 28, a flight from Colorado Springs was the first to land at Denver International Airport (DEN), the first major built-from-the-ground-up airport in the United States since the 1970s.

This February, DEN celebrates its 15th anni­versary as the fifth-busiest airport in the United States and the 10th busiest air hub in the world. Perched strategically near the foot of the Rocky Mountains and in the geographic centre of the United States, Denver International Airport is poised for the next phase of development this year. The airport’s massive 53-square-mile site provides ample space for the future expansion of facilities, to ensure that DEN remains one of the premier airports.

Fifteen years after opening, DEN is operating at close to capacity, and we are planning infrastructure, including a new terminal hotel, revamped main terminal, and a commuter rail connection to downtown Denver. We are also planning future concourses and runway expansions to accommodate future demand.

This year marks our 15th anniversary of operating as Denver International Airport. While many businesses use their anniversaries as an opportunity to reflect on the past, we are focused on the future, because this airport has such a bright potential. Of course, that’s been DEN’s philosophy from the beginning. We exist today because the visionaries who conceived and built this airport focused on the future of air travel and the potential of this mid- continent facility.

Planned on 53 square miles of what was then remote land, many people said that DEN was destined to fail. They said it was nothing more than a project that would benefit the careers of the politicians promoting it, and that the real focus should be on updating and expanding Stapleton, Denver’s commercial airport of the time.

But the visionaries were undaunted, and today DEN is the fifth-busiest airport in the United States, 10th in the world and the largest economic engine of this region. We have over 1,700 daily flights, and 20 airlines operating from our three concourses serving 161 non-stop domestic and international destinations.

Okay – I know that I just said that we aren’t focused on the past, but I need to mention something about the last two years for the rest of this article to make sense.

In 2008, DEN saw its busiest year in history, serving 51.2 million passengers. Although we don’t yet have our final numbers for 2009, we’ve fared much better than most other airports here in the United States and around the world. Through November, our traffic was down only 2.1 percent, and we expect to finish the year down only two percent, which will be our second straight year to serve 50 million passengers.

I don’t know too many chief executives that get excited about negative numbers, but with today’s economy and the state of the industry, I am incredibly pleased with our performance this year. A number of factors have contributed to our success. First and foremost is our geographic advantage, being in the centre of the country. We are just a few hours away by air from all North American business centres, and we have a large catchment area with little competition. We also have a local population with a propensity to travel, and as a result we have a strong domestic route network served by three fierce competitors – United, Frontier and Southwest – who have continued to add flights in Denver despite the toll the world economy has taken on our industry.

So, what do all of these stats and figures mean? It means we are feeling the pressure of a facility that is approaching its maximum capacity and we must now start planning for DEN’s next phase of growth, and the phase beyond that. We must at least think about the longer term, to make smart decisions related to our near term needs.

DEN’s initial construction was designed to accommodate 50 million annual passengers, and while the terminal and landside are not a congestion nightmare, elements are showing stress, such as our train that connects the terminal to the concourses, and the security checkpoints are shoe-horned into spaces designed for other uses. It’s time to plan.

While we are planning for growth, we are designing an enhancement to our existing facility. The South Terminal Redevelopment Programme includes; construction of a terminal hotel, a commuter train station, a redevelopment of the current Jeppesen Terminal and the support infrastructure for all.

The long-awaited rail connection to downtown Denver’s Union Station is finally about to begin construction. While we must build a train station to accommodate the first trains by 2016, we also have an opportunity to integrate the station with our terminal and other amenities, such as a hotel, which will generate money to help build the station. So, we are taking a look at the bigger picture. Instead of just building a train station and then trying to add other projects to the mix down the road, we are bundling the individual projects into a single programme, to better integrate passenger flow, gain efficiencies in cost and construction methods and to ensure the right sizing and location of all the components.

With the South Terminal Redevelopment Project, we hope to take DEN to the next level in terms of being a world-class airport. When looking at many of the world’s top airports, nearly all of them have an airport hotel and a link to the adjacent city centre. Looking at our location – nearly 25 miles northeast of downtown Denver – this is a long-overdue amenity for our employees and our customers.

Within the year, we plan to begin construction on the train station and a Westin Hotel, which will be located adjacent to and connected with our main terminal. A large public plaza will tie the elements together and create a new area where commuters will arrive and travellers, as well as meeters and greeters, can dwell. We are using the Munich Airport Centre as our inspiration. We even plan to follow our sister airport’s lead and develop an on-site brew pub, like Airbräu, that is the favorite meeting point for employees and travellers alike at MUC.

Most importantly, the projects in the South Terminal Redevelopment Programme will increase our non-airline revenues. This currently accounts for about 45 percent of our total revenue, which is good, but not good enough. We are constantly focused on ways we can reduce costs for our airlines, as this is a key component of our competitive success. We used to be billed as the “high-cost” airport, but now we can say that our costs fall right in the middle of the pack among major U.S. airports.

The South Terminal Redevelopment Programme is an enhancement project, but we must also address the need for expansion in the not-so-distant future.

Here at DEN, we have the luxury of six non-intersecting runways (four north-south and two east-west), one iconic central terminal and three long airline concourses (located on very wide taxi-lanes perfect for hubbing) that are connected by a train. Our nearly 100 gates accommodate a healthy mix of wide-bodied and narrow-bodied aircraft.

But we are only half way built.

Our full build-out can accommodate six additional runways (12 total), 100 more gates and an additional terminal building. Our land mass is our greatest asset and we must plan wisely to protect it.

We have spent the last 18 months studying what the future of DEN should look like and when it should happen. Later this year, we will unveil our preferred alternate design, which will include user-friendly, efficient gates near our main terminal, the identification of the location of the next runways to be built, and a logical accommodation of future rental car and parking needs.

Most important to remember is that it is just a plan. In an industry that is constantly changing, our best strategy is to remain flexible. This was a primary tenant of the original masterplan of over 15 years ago, and is the single largest contributor to our success today.

Another philosophy we share with the original visionaries is our commitment to sustainability and the environment. We are con­tinually developing new ways to reduce our impact on our environment.

Denver International Airport has been, and continues to be, a trailblazer in this area. We are world-renowned for our environmental management system, and are proud of our numerous accomplishments in this area:

  • DEN was the first commercial airport in the U.S. to develop and implement a facility-wide environmental management system certified to the ISO 14001 standard
  • DEN is a recipient of the prestigious FAA Environmental Stewardship Award
  • We have been lauded by the State of Colo­rado and inducted into the Gold Level of their environmental leadership programme.

DEN is an active participant in many local and state sustainability initiatives, including Greenprint Denver and Colorado Climate Action Plan. We run a modern, entrepreneurial airport that operates in support of the commitment to sustainability that has been set forth by the city of Denver and the state of Colorado. We are not afraid to try out new technologies and innovative concepts, and we share our expertise with our sister Colorado airports through on-site training.

We are huge proponents of alternative energy sources, and at the end of 2009 our second on-site solar array went online. This new array produces 1.6 megawatts of elec­tricity and will provide the electricity needed to operate our fuel storage and distribution facility. This will further reduce our overall carbon footprint and lower our airline opera­ting costs. We also recycle trash, use a largely compressed natural gas fleet and reclaim and recycle over 75 percent of the glycol captured from aircraft deicing.

We are also proud to be a member of the aviation working group of the Global Reporting Initiative, which will establish sustainability guidelines for the aviation industry. Through this initiative, we are working closely with an elite group of environmentally responsible airports: Athens Eleftherios International, Cancun Airport International; both Frankfurt and Munich International airports of Germany; Kuala Lumpur Intern­ational; Toronto Pearson International; Zurich Airport in Switzerland, and Portland International and San Diego Inter­national airports here in the United States.

As you know, this is not only an exciting time for our airport but also for our industry. To assure ourselves a solid future, we must work with vision, financial prudence and in collaboration.

Fifteen years ago Denver International Airport opened due to the vision, resolve and perseverance of a group of visionaries to whom we owe a great debt. We hope that on the 30th anniversary of this great airport in 2025, our successors can be proud of the legacy that we currently strive to leave them: a world class facility with smartly sized and located infrastructure, flexibility to change with the industry, a vital financial engine, and plenty of room to keep growing.

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