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AIRPORT PROFILES Last modified on March 19, 2015

Hitting new heights

Denver International Airport has been winning friends and influencing people for 20 years now and its ambition to do better shows no sign of slowing down, writes Graham Newton.

When Denver International Airport (DIA) opened in February 1995 its Fentress-designed peaked roof – reminiscent of the surrounding snow-capped mountains – drew admiring glances from passengers and aviation insiders alike.

The aesthetic appreciation soon gave way to more practical matters but again DIA hit its mark. Airline clients talked openly of the most efficient airport in the US system.

Twenty years on, DIA is intent on maintaining the feel-good factor. CEO, Kim Day, admits that the iconic facility brings with it a responsibility to plan wisely and build to a quality and design that complements and enhances the existing architecture. 

“Denver International Airport was built with growth in mind,” she says. “The airport has 53 square miles of land, making it the second largest physical airport in the world. At full build-out the airport can grow from its current six-runway design, serving 53 million passengers a year to 12 runways, serving 100 million passengers a year.”

A stepping stone on the path to this ultimate build-out is the Hotel and Transit Center Program. Part of the original vision for the airport, this includes three independent, yet physically integrated, projects:

  • The 519-room Westin Denver International Airport Hotel, which will include a 26,000 square foot conference centre for up to 2,500 people. It opens at the end of 2015.
  • A public transit centre serving the regional bus system and the new commuter rail line connecting Denver International Airport to downtown Denver in about 35 minutes. Service begins in early 2016.
  • A 82,000 square foot open air public plaza, an urban space at the airport, which will be a venue for performances and exhibits as well as a location for relaxation and dining.

“The design of the Hotel and Transit Center provides wonderful new amenities for passengers and a great location for corporate meetings,” enthuses Day. 

“The hotel is designed to create a dynamic, urban feel that maximises views of the city, the Rocky Mountains, the airfield and Jeppesen Terminal while providing connectivity to the airport.”

Meanwhile, the downtown rail connection has been described as a “game-changer” and recaptures the convenience more associated with Denver’s former airport, Stapleton.

As for the public plaza, that will add to the ever-improving passenger experience. It is designed to be an accessible and welcoming venue for arts and entertainment, integrating DIA into the community like never before and providing a true city experience at the airport.

 

Land of opportunity

DIA is taking that city experience concept seriously. The airport has more land for commercial development than any other airport in North America. “This gives us a big competitive advantage and opportunities for sustainable economic growth that most airports in the world envy,” Day notes. 

“In the near-term, about 10% of this land contains the infrastructure needed for aviation-centric, mixed-use development that might include hotels, logistic centres, training facilities, office, retail and industrial projects. We also have two additional commuter rail stations under construction that are ideal for true transit-oriented development.”

Until now, this potential development has been referred to as Airport City Denver. But the terminology is changing and the airport’s land development programme will in future be known as DEN Real Estate. 

The focus remains the same though – leveraging the airport’s extensive land, geographic location, global connectivity and regional assets for economic development and aeronautical growth. 

“Our location makes us appealing for companies that may want to distribute products throughout the US and the world,” says Day. “Our sheer size provides the ability for corporations to scale their operations as they grow. And our non-stop access to more than 180 locations around the world allows businesses to extend their reach around the globe.

“Together, this region can serve the needs of any business that wants to take advantage of the connectivity of metro Denver’s air and ground transportation system, highly motivated and well-educated workforce, and business-friendly environment.”

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The passenger experience

At the heart of DIA’s appeal is the passenger experience. Winning customers’ hearts and minds means listening to what they want and continuing to seek innovative ways to engage with them.

The airport has already responded to an array of desires. Developments at DIA range from improved Wi-Fi coverage to a five-gate expansion on Concourse C for Southwest Airlines. 

The new Southwest space features integrated technology – iPads can be used to order beverages, receive concierge service, check e-mail and review flight status. Improved seating includes electrical outlets, cup holders and individual tables. 

Another element in enhancing the customer experience is the transformation of the airport’s shopping and dining options. In September and early October 2014, DIA hosted a Beer Garden at the heart of the Jeppesen terminal, allowing travellers and airport patrons to sample local draft beer. The plan is to repeat this annually.

A total of 21 new shopping or dining locations opened last year. The food options range from a table awarding-winning restaurant, Root Down, to Steve’s Snappin’ Dogs, a family-owned local favourite offering a wide variety of hotdogs and burgers. Other new venues include Elway’s, a fine dining establishment, Cru food and wine bar and a health food option in Etai’s Bakery Café.

“Our food offerings have not only got better, they have got better for you,” Day enthuses. “What used to be a smattering of fast food options has transformed into a wide range of dining destinations that offer new local tastes alongside established national brands. We earned the number one ranking for healthiest airport food in the country from the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine.”

Improved nutrition may gave give customers renewed energy for shopping. Recent retail additions include MAC Cosmetics, TulehRuche, ExpressSpa, the Tattered Cover bookstores and Final Approach. The latter facility has reimagined the cell phone waiting lot by offering food, fuel, a children’s area, flight information boards and free Wi-Fi.

 

Traffic trends

Passenger traffic at DIA hit an all-time high in 2014 when a record 53.4 million (+1.7%) people passed through its facilities. Indeed, the airport set new monthly records for passenger throughput in January, February, April, May, September and October and saw the launch of new services to destinations such as Tokyo and Panama City.

Days enthuses: “We will continue to build on this momentum as we work to add new destinations, better customer amenities and services that ensures Denver International Airport’s place on the world map.”

The total cements its status among the top five busiest airports in the US and top 20 globally for passenger traffic.

 

On the right track

DIA’s planned new $544 million Hotel and Transit Center (HTC) is often referred to as being the new front door for the Jeppesen Terminal.

According to lead designer Gensler, when the HTC opens, visitors will enter the terminal through a partly covered outdoor public plaza that will attract locals as well as passengers as it hosts a variety of facilities and special events. 

“Among the possibilities are farmers markets, concerts, and even small sporting events, all of them designed to draw people, including the people who live in the city and region, out to the airport,” says Gensler’s Denver based design director, Brent Mather.

Surrounding and rising above the plaza will be a 519-key Westin Hotel and Conference Center offering spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains, a rooftop pool and two restaurants, both of which will have a distinct Denver feel. 

Mather reveals that beneath the plaza via a four-story escalator is the “nerve centre” of the whole development – the terminus of the new East Rail Line connecting DIA to downtown Denver. That rail line will open in 2016. 

“A soaring glass-and-steel train canopy establishes a sense of place and engages the hotel conference centre. Adjacent to the train hall is a pick-up and drop-off for regional and local buses,” enthuses Mather.

While any one of those elements is impressive, the sum total and bigger picture is more potent: Denver is now bringing its airport into the urban fold. 

“The vision and concept for the new HTC has always been one: to melt those 20 miles between city centre and airport and create a terminal that is a springboard to downtown Denver and a travel destination unto itself, albeit one that is very much of Denver.”

Gensler is the lead designer on the HTC project, which is being managed by Parsons, and involves the participation of more than 116 different companies.

They include Anderson Mason Dale Architects (associate architect); Iron Horse Architects (associate architects), SA Miro (structural engineers) and Mortensen (hotel construction) as well as a vast team of consultants such as Gresham Smith & Partners (graphic signage design), URS Corporation (special systems), Hughes Engineering (fire protection) and Ambient Energy (sustainability).

 

Healthy finances

A number of factors has helped Day manage the plethora of developments at DIA. Arguably most important is the airport’s strong financial position. 

“Our financial strength has benefitted from extensive planning and the strong passenger growth we have seen over the past four years, which has helped us to outperform the objectives we established in our 10-year financial strategy,” Day informs. 

“Our long-term plan focuses on balancing three primary metrics (cost per enplaned passenger, cash on hand and debt coverage) while funding ongoing maintenance and facility upgrades. We work hard to maintain competitive operating costs for our airline partners. 

“Our plan also supports the airport’s need to adapt to changing markets and economic climates. We established targets against which we can manage and measure performance.”

She also places emphasis on the airport leadership team, empowering and encouraging them to outperform their own vision of their abilities. 

According to Day, a key part of her job is to keep them focused on the overall strategic vision of the city and the airport, while providing them with the resources to accomplish their individual strategic and tactical plans.

“I try not to micro-manage, while keeping a pulse on the details of individual initiatives,” she says. “That is a difficult rope to walk, but I think it is vital. I also think personal touches like handwritten notes, face-to-face conversations and birthday cards sent to all employees’ homes help to create a culture of caring and collaboration, and makes individuals at all levels of the organisation feel a part of something bigger, inspiring them to contribute.”

Externally, Day notes the imperative to build a relationship of transparency and trust with the Mayor (Day’s boss), the city council, other elected officials and the overall business community. 

“As a public agency, it is important to maintain the public trust, by making fair and ethical decisions in all that we do,” she concludes.

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