An Airport Shrouded In Mystery: The Story Of Denver International

In a few months’ time, Denver International Airport in Colorado will mark 27 years since it commenced operations. The facility is known for being the largest US airport by surface area, and it sits at an altitude of nearly 5,500 feet above sea level. Now a key base for several major US carriers, it is making a strong post-pandemic recovery.

An Airport Shrouded In Mystery: The Story Of Denver International
At 32%, Southwest Airlines has the second-largest market share in Denver. Photo: Getty Images.

Denver International was preceded by the city’s old Stapleton International, which was popular with airlines due to its central location in the US. However, this popularity eventually made a new, larger airport necessary, which came about in February 1995 when Denver International opened its doors. In the years that have followed, it has grown to become a six-runway hub for several key US airlines, including the likes of Frontier, Southwest, and United.

A new airport for Denver

Denver International as a concept dates back to the early 1980s, when local authorities began exploring the idea of a new airport for the city. Scheduled to open in October 1993, the new facility eventually commenced operations 16 months late, in February 1995. Costing $4.8 billion ($8.2 billion today), it ran nearly $2 billion ($3.4 billion today) over budget.

United was the first airline to both land and depart at the airport. Denver is a key hub for United today, serving domestic and international destinations seasonally and year-round. Its first arrival was from Colorado Springs, while the first departure served Kansas City.

United Airlines Boeing 737 Denver Getty
United Airlines operated Denver International’s first arrival and departure. Photo: Getty Images

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A lengthy sixth runway

Eight years after opening, Denver international added a sixth runway (16R/34L). This was its longest yet, measuring an impressive 4,877 meters long. This makes it one of the lengthiest in the world. In fairness, all of Denver’s other five runways are also conspicuous in their length, each coming in at 3,658 meters long, still some 1.2km shorter than 16R/34L.

The reason for Denver’s longer-than-average runways is its altitude. Situated more than a mile above sea level, the airport is prone to ‘hot and high’ conditions. These result in reduced lift and engine performance, meaning that aircraft need more runway to take off. Runway 16R/34L can support fully-loaded Airbus A380s and Boeing 747s despite its altitude.

Frontier Airlines 2004
Frontier is Denver’s third-largest airline by passenger numbers, with a 14% share. Photo: Getty Images

A strong recovery

Shrouded in mystery by a range of conspiracy theories, Denver is the US’s largest airport by surface area. However, last year, like many airports worldwide, it fell quiet as the impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic caused passenger demand levels to plummet.

Indeed, the airport lost more than half its annual passengers, with figures falling from 69 million in 2019 to less than 34 million in 2020. However, it has recovered well from the global health crisis, and February 2021 saw it become the US’s third-busiest airport.

It even managed to exceed its September 2019 figures by 15% when the month rolled around this year. This summer saw another key milestone, when Air France became the first European SkyTeam carrier to serve Denver. The airport is now operating at 99% of pre-pandemic capacity, and it looks well-placed to exit the crisis with further growth on its mind.

What do you make of Denver International? Have you ever visited the US’s largest airport by surface area? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.