Denver's New Airport (or Fiasco)

April 24, 1994

Denver International Airport, when it finally opens, will be a giant. But a giant what?

It might become a hugely successful refinement of the regional hub that has dominated U.S. air travel for a couple of decades. Also an immense stimulus to economic development in and around Denver. Or it could become one of the most resounding flops in the history of U.S. public works projects -- not simply a white elephant but a monstrous dinosaur.

There is smart money being bet on both extremes as the airport prepares for its twice-postponed opening in three weeks. On the positive side, the 53-square-mile airport is strategically located for transcontinental and intercontinental travel from the nation's heartland. Its five runways can handle three aircraft coming or going simultaneously. The terminal was designed for maximum convenience to passengers, especially those changing planes. Much of its equipment is state of the art.

All true, respond the nay-sayers. But they add that the airport is 23 miles from downtown Denver, way beyond convenient but antiquated Stapleton International Airport, renowned for its weather delays. Denver International is expensive to get to and to use, especially for airlines that will have to pay twice as much to operate at the new airport.

One reason for the high costs is that the airport cost $3.2 billion, almost twice the initial estimate. At last report its vaunted computer-controlled baggage-handling system was chewing up bags. Finally, the airport may prove to be a grandiose monument to a type of airline service that is falling out of favor.

Denver International was designed as a regional hub. Its success depends on airlines using it as a transfer point for passengers on long-haul flights. Some in the airline industry believe hubs represent the past, not the future. Struggling Continental Airlines, once Denver's biggest, is cutting back service there. And the hoped-for economic development will take years to materialize, if it ever does.

Significantly, the freeway leading to the airport is Pena Boulevard. It is named for the Denver mayor who pushed the project to fruition, Federico Pena. He just happens now to be the U.S. secretary of transportation, which oversees the airline industry. Cynics believe that may have something to do with the airport's future success.

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