Located on a 52.4-square-mile site 25 miles northeast of the city, Denver International Airport (DIA) is the largest airport in North America by land area and the second-largest in the world. This vast airport with a spectacular tented terminal makes Denver one of the nation’s top air hubs. Since its 1995 opening, DIA has become the fifth-busiest airport in the United States. As of 2020, DIA is the eighteenth-busiest airport in the world. With more than 35,000 employees, it is the largest employer in Colorado and has sparked a building boom in northeast metro Denver. By expanding access to not only Colorado but also the entire Rocky Mountain region, DIA enhances Denver’s sway over a huge hinterland.
Denver and Colorado have always relied upon transportation to dominate the Rocky Mountain region. Railroads originally made Denver a regional hub that, by 1890, was second only to San Francisco in population among western cities. Throughout the twentieth century, Denver struggled to maintain its position, losing ground to Sunbelt cities such as Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Denver and Colorado actually lost population during the 1980s oil bust, while Kansas City, San Antonio, Sacramento, San Jose, and Portland gained.
At the end of the 1980s, Denver mayor Federico Peña and Colorado governor Roy Romer both announced that transportation, notably a new airport, would be the key to Colorado’s recovery and prosperity. Denver’s Stapleton International Airport had first opened in 1929 as Denver Municipal Airport, with four gravel runways and a windsock. The airport was renamed Stapleton, after the mayor who presided over its development, in 1944. The airport grew after World War II, until it was the world’s fifth-busiest air hub by the 1980s. Yet despite continual expansions, Stapleton struggled to keep up with passenger service.
Dallas–Fort Worth’s 1973 airport (DFW), the last major one to be built in the United States, inspired Denver’s grandiose scheme. After its 1973 opening, DFW went from nine to forty-three carriers and soared ahead of Stapleton to become the world’s fourth-busiest in terms of passengers served. The Dallas–Fort Worth region experienced 25 percent growth during the 1970s, a success story not lost on Denver, which had become a national champion in empty office space and business bankruptcies during the oil crash of the mid-1980s.
While Denver was envying Dallas, it got a poke in the backside from Salt Lake City. The Utah capital emerged as a rival after Delta Airlines acquired Western Airlines in 1986 and made Salt Lake its western hub. This new threat was underlined by full-page ads in the New York Times and other national publications in February 1986, featuring a harried executive arriving late for a meeting who says, “Sorry I’m late, but I had to fly through Denver.” Next time he would fly through Salt Lake City. Mayor Peña protested to the airlines and authorized a $200,000 campaign to sing Stapleton’s praises. Boosters of the Beehive State stung Coloradans again in 1987 by creating a new, snow-white license plate with a skier and the slogan “Utah! Greatest Snow on Earth.”
Utah’s stinging competition jolted new airport proponents in Denver. So did Las Vegas’s long-range strategy of overbuilding its airport to promote economic growth. A blue-ribbon panel of Colorado business and civic leaders found that “in Dallas–Fort Worth and Atlanta, cities whose economies are similar to Denver’s as regional centers, new airports have been the key element in attracting new business.” Proponents claimed the new airport would pay for itself with revenue bonds to be paid from landing fees, concession rental, parking fees, and other airport income. Boosters claimed that Denver had to grow or wither, that it must replace Stapleton International with a new regional airport or lose business to rivals.
Where to put such a huge new facility became an issue. Some hoped to expand the existing Stapleton International Airport using the vacated Rocky Mountain Arsenal on the north edge of the existing airport. Others said that site was contaminated and not large enough. Ultimately, agreement was reached on largely unoccupied farmland on the northeast outskirts of Denver, much of which lay in Adams County.
Opponents charged that Denver’s new sky hub would generate more traffic and automobile pollution by moving the airport thirteen miles farther away from the core city. Denver, they added, would be the first city ever to scrap a major, functioning airport. Naysayers worried that the new airport would take business, conventions, and tourists away from the urban core to northern and eastern suburbs. That prediction later became true as many hotels and other enterprises opened along or near Peña Boulevard, the main road to DIA.
Critics also argued that both Continental and United, DIA’s two major carriers, were financially troubled. Both might shift their hubs from Denver’s expensive new facility to other, cheaper airports. Initially, Continental and United threatened to sue to stop construction, which they claimed was unneeded and would force them—and their customers—to pay exorbitant landing fees. The airlines pointed out that two of the five concourses at Stapleton were practically empty, as passenger service had declined since 1986. Critics further charged the airport would inevitably cost much more than the $1.9 billion estimate. That figure, they pointed out, did not cover highways and light rail to the airport, airline equipment costs, and clean-up costs of the abandoned airport. Denver’s claim that it could sell the Stapleton site for $100 million was also challenged.
Denver International Airport was approved by Adams County voters in 1988 and by Denver residents in 1989, with considerable cheerleading from business and political figures. Adams County citizens had to say yes to allow Denver to annex the land. Opponents forced the special Denver election on the issue. In oratory reminiscent of past promises for transportation panaceas, Governor Romer declared in 1989: “The airport is the single most important economic decision this state will make in the next 20 years. We have an opportunity to build an airport that will be second to none and will lead Colorado into the next century as the transportation hub of this nation.”
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) agreed with the yea-sayers, pointing out that Stapleton was a bottleneck and claiming a new facility was necessary to end flight delays and hazardous congestion in the national air network. Noting that Denver was the only major US city seriously contemplating a large new airport, the FAA in 1989 endorsed the project. It approved the final Environmental Impact Statement and contributed $60 million for the groundbreaking.
Building the World’s Largest Airport
Mayor Peña and the airport planning team promised that in contrast to the hodgepodge of additions at Stapleton, the new airport would be a thoroughly planned, cutting-edge solution. A master plan—worked out among Denver, Aurora, Commerce City, and Adams County—clarified each community’s sphere of interest in surrounding commercial, industrial, recreational, and residential development. The airport-area master plan called for converting the nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal into a national wildlife preserve, allowing travelers to observe golden and bald eagles, see buffalo roam, watch prairie dogs dig their own villages, and see the deer and the antelope play. Wheat farming would continue on a lease arrangement, and one barn would be left as a tribute to the land’s former use.
Denver charged ahead. In September 1989, Denverites watching the evening news saw ground broken in a wheat field and heard a beaming Mayor Peña declare that the world’s largest airport would open there in May 1993. In April 1990, the city sold $704 million in tax-free municipal revenue bonds to finance airport construction, though declining passenger numbers, the Denver-area depression, and the shakiness of both Continental and United led Moody’s to assign the bonds a lackluster rating.
A new airport provided an opportunity for aesthetic distinction, unlike the hodgepodge of additions that made Stapleton no thing of beauty. Drawing inspiration from the snowcapped Rockies and from American Indian tipis that once occupied the site, architects Curt Fentress and James Bradburn designed a terminal with Teflon-coated white fiberglass tents that would glow night and day atop a man-made mesa.
From the terminal, passengers were connected to three concourses via underground train. The concourses led to five 12,000-foot runways and one 16,000-footer, the longest in the country, with plenty of room for seven more runways and future expansion. A computerized baggage system—a much-touted novelty—repeatedly malfunctioned, delaying the airport opening for two years. On February 28, 1995, DIA opened with its signature tent-topped roof on the Jeppesen Terminal, named for Denver-based aviation pioneer Elrey Jeppesen, known worldwide for his navigation charts.
Denver’s policy of setting aside 1 percent of any city project over $1 million for public art meant millions for art scattered throughout the terminal and concourses. Most spectacular and controversial was New Mexico artist Luis Jiménez’s Blue Mustang. This thirty-two-foot-high, raging, rearing neon blue horse has glaring red eyes that attracted criticism of what some called “Blucifer” or “Devil Horse.” The fact that the horse fell on and killed Jiménez, its creator, added to the eeriness. Finally installed on a prominent hilltop in 2008, “Blue Mustang” could be seen from all vehicular approaches to the terminal.
DIA was part of a broad transformation that remade Denver in the early 1990s. A boom in Lower Downtown Denver after its designation as a historic district in 1988, the launching of the Regional Transportation District’s light rail system (1994), and the opening of Coors Field (1995) also kindled economic recovery, though DIA remained the biggest factor. By 2020 DIA offered nonstop service to 215 destinations from 23 different airlines with international flights connecting to North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia. It is the fourth airport in the United States to exceed 200 destinations. The airport is a hub for both United Airlines and Frontier Airlines and a base for Southwest Airlines.
Even as it has become an established institution, DIA undergoes constant change. The 2016 completion of the Regional Transportation District’s A Line commuter rail from Union Station to DIA furthered the emergence of what boosters like to call an “aerotropolis.” An airport-centered district of businesses, hotels, offices, transportation, amusements, and housing, the aerotropolis concept was pushed by Mayor Michael Hancock, who negotiated a deal with Adams County officials to allow Denver to develop the annexed land around the airport in exchange for an upfront payment and an even split of future tax revenues. Some predict DIA will eventually become a second urban core rivaling the old city of Denver. A harbinger is the Gaylord Rockies Resort, Colorado’s largest hotel, which opened in 2018 on eighty-five acres of previously raw prairie. Located close to DIA, Peña Boulevard, and E-470, it competes with downtown Denver’s Colorado Convention Center and hotels, which sued unsuccessfully to stop the Gaylord project.
In 2018 work began on a major DIA interior renovation and reconfiguration within the terminal to relocate security checkpoints and consolidate airline ticket counters. This problem-plagued project is now expected to be completed by 2025. Work is also underway on expanding all three concourses, with twelve gates being added to concourse A, eleven to B, and sixteen to C for a total of thirty-nine new gates. Such continual expansion adds to the price of the $2.3 billion airport that has wound up costing more than $6 billion.