Thursday, March 4, 2010

DIA's Future: Dream or Nightmare?

When Denver International Airport opened 15 years ago, years late and way over budget, it was derided as being too big, too costly, and too far away from the the city it served.  Continental abandoned it's hub operations and discount carriers like Southwest declined to offer service due to the high cost of operating here.

Day's Plans For DIA

As DIA celebrates it's 15th anniversary, a new article in Denver's Westword weekly paper "DIA Dreams: Aviation director Kim Day plans to take DIA where no airport has gone before" examines some ideas for it's future, as proposed by DIA's Manager of Aviation, Kim Day.   I would like to share my perspective on of her plans as a pilot, a Denver based traveler, and an aviation enthusiast.

First, let's look at where we agree:

Kim Day, DIA's manager of aviation, believes the airport is uniquely positioned to adapt to growing traffic, in part because of the remote location its detractors have always complained about. The airport sits on 53 square miles of sheer potential. It has room for half a dozen more runways, with few neighbors to complain about them, while other, hemmed-in airports are spending billions on protracted battles with adjacent communities over expansion issues.
"We have so many physical advantages," Day says. "JFK has limited land, LAX has limited land. Their gateways, in particular, are very constrained. They will cap out at some point in time, while we could well move up in market share."

This is to say that DIA's weakness, it's remote location, will be it's strength in the decades to come.   DIA has six runways and ample room for six more, while Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world, recently spent billions to add a fifth runway to it's constrained location.    It may take thirty years or more, but I can see Denver offering better service than Atlanta one day.

Light Rail And A Hotel Good, A New Terminal.....

Day is also wise to pursue light rail access to the airport, as well as an on site hotel.   Both of these projects will mitigate the weakness of DIA's remote location.

When it comes to some of her other grandiose plans for the airport, I have to strongly disagree with her thinking. Day's idea to create a whole new terminal to the south of the existing one seems predicated on some flawed beliefs.  Alan Pendergast, the author of the Westword article states; "As passenger traffic increases in the next few years, the trains will be operating at capacity".    It is not clear if this Pendergast's view or Day's, but that statement just doesn't make sense.   DIA has virtually the same train system as Atlanta's Hartsfield airport, yet Hartsfield operates with 76% more passengers (85 million annually to DIA's 46 million).   While Atlanta continues to expand it's people mover system to serve a new international concourse, it's 7th, Day is hiring consultants to build new concourses and terminals away from it's existing three concourses because Denver's train is supposedly reaching capacity.     Sure, DIA's trains could be operated more efficiently, but they are a far cry from reaching their maximum capacity.

According to the article, "Alternative plans place the new concourses flanking the terminal on the east and west or even south of the hotel development, with a bus shuttling back and forth."  Such distant concourses, accessed by bus, will ruin the most efficient aspects of the DIA and ATL designs, the linking of all gates with a single in line transportation system.

Day is also ignoring the fact that like DIA's runways, it's concourses were originally designed for tremendous growth.  Unlike Atlanta, DIA's existing concourses can be substantially lengthened to accommodate far more  aircraft gates than they currently do.   According to Denver International Airport: Lessons Learned, by Paul Stephen Dempsey, DIA was designed to accommodate 110 million passengers a year at full buildout, more than any other airport that existed at the time.

In the most optimistic growth scenarios, it will be decades before DIA builds out it's concourses and necessitates the kind of expansion Day is planning for.  Realistically, it is not hard to imagine that Denver residents might look back on the last few years as a Golden Age for DIA when we had United, Frontier, and Southwest, each competing with an extensive hub operation.  Any one of these hubs would be the envy of many a medium sized city, and the list of airports in the world that have sustained three separate domestic hub operations is a very small list.

The Great Hall

I will join the chorus of jeers Day received when she proposed placing security outside of the Great Hall.   If one truly wanted to encourage the use of the Great Hall as a public space, there would be a simple way to accomplish that.    Before 9/11, parking was free at the terminal for 90 minutes, and people who felt like entering the terminal with arriving and departing passengers could do so for free, as long as they kept a close eye on the time.   Free parking disappeared for a few years after 9/11 due to "security reasons", only to reappear as paid short term parking.     Why not bring back free short term parking?    It would be easy to allow several hours of free parking without impugning on revenue from actual travelers.    The money lost from the existing short term parkers would be made up with concession revenue in the great hall.   A side effect would be an easing of congestion in the passenger pickup area.    I am sure this idea would never work as it hasn't been the subject of a multi-million dollar study and wouldn't cost a thing to implement.

It's All About The Money

The real danger is that Day's grand plans will raise enplanement costs to airlines, which will discourage growth, or even result in less traffic.  As the article states:

One reason for DIA's economic success has been the relentless whittling away of its landing fees, so that the average "cost per enplanement" (CPE) has dropped from $16.85 in 1995 to about $10.50 in 2009. That makes the airport a more attractive stop for carriers such as Southwest, which, in turn, helps to keep airfares low for the consumer.

Once you have less traffic, enplanement costs could rise in a viscous cycle, further discouraging new entrants to the market.   It is hard to see how Day's dreams could result in anything other than runaway costs and less growth at DIA.


DIA's visionary architects clearly anticipated that the city and the airport would grow far beyond it's initial capacity.   A generation ago, that growth was planned for in an intelligent manner.    It would be really sad if Kim Day threw those plans away and squandered DIA's hard won economic advantages by pursuing her bizarre redesign of Denver's aviation icon.

Monday, March 1, 2010

And I've Never Flown US Airways!!!


This is my balance in Frequent Flier Miles with US Airways as of today.  I "bought" these miles for about $2,000.  I described the whole scheme here.

Yes, it was perfectly legal.

No, it is too late for you to do it.

Looking at US Airways Star Alliance award chart, you can see that this is the equivalent of:

19 round trip domestic tickets.


4 tickets to Israel in Business class (with 3 domestic round trips remaining).

These miles are good on any Star Alliance airline such as Continental, Lufthansa, Swiss and others.

Remember, I have never flown US Airways, and I probably never will.