Denver International Airport Becomes The Third Busiest In The US

Pending the finalization of 2020 passenger traffic numbers, Denver International Airport looks to have been the third-busiest airport in the United States last year when measured by passenger numbers. This is despite passenger traffic through TSA checkpoints at Denver being down 54% on 2019 levels.

Measured by passenger numbers, Denver International Airport was the third busiest in the US across 2020. Photo: Denver International Airport

“2020 was a year like we’ve never seen before in the aviation industry,” said Denver International Airport’s CEO Kim Day. In a horror start to 2020, the airport saw a 96% decline in passenger numbers. But in the latter half of 2020, numbers improved. “Denver’s traffic has rebounded better than we predicted and finished 2020 ahead of our projections.”

2020 puts the brakes on Denver Airport’s growth

Owned by the City and County of Denver, the Denver Department of Aviation-operated airport handled 69 million passengers in 2019. At 53 mi2, the airport is twice the size of Manhattan Island.

The airport’s six runways hosted 24 regular airlines in 2019. Those airlines flew to 189 destinations in the United States and 26 international destinations in 12 countries.

Typically, there were around 1,700 flight movements per day in 2019. That same year, Denver International Airport was ranked the 5th busiest airport in the United States.

However, the travel downturn put the brakes on Denver Airport’s booming numbers. Just 33.7 million passengers passed through the airport in 2020. At its nadir, on April 15, a mere 2,026 people went through TSA checkpoints at Denver Airport.

From that low point, Denver Airport has bounced back better than expected. Passenger numbers through TSA checkpoints were down 62% overall across the US in 2020. Denver Airport performed better, passenger numbers at their TSA checkpoints down 54% over the year.

Solid business from domestic airlines helped Denver Airport get through 2020. Photo: Denver International Airport

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Denver Airport benefits from connecting traffic and strong domestic business

With its strategic location east of the Rockies, Denver benefited from a downturn in point-to-point flights in 2020. Whereas 36% of Denver’s passenger numbers in 2019 were connecting passengers, that increased to 40% in 2020.

The airport also benefitted from strong domestic business. Denver is served by all the major airlines in the United States. Throughout 2020, United Airlines had the biggest presence at the airport. Southwest and Frontier followed United Airlines.

For all three airlines, Denver International Airport was their largest station throughout the fourth quarter of 2020. The airport also picked up four new domestic destinations in 2020 – Cheyenne, Provo, Rochester, and Sioux City.

But Denver didn’t do so well with its international flights in 2020. International flights have never been a big part of Denver’s overall operations, with the airport handling just 3.2 million international passengers in 2019. That was 4.6% of Denver’s overall passenger numbers that year.

Those numbers deteriorated further last year. The airport handled less than one million international passengers in 2020, the lowest number in 17 years. For 75 days in 2020, between April 2 and June 15, Denver International Airport did not host any international flights.

Compared to 12 twelve months ago, 16 international destinations in six countries are now connected to Denver. Despite this, Denver Airport says international flights are slowly returning.

Denver was a major hub in 2020 for domestic US carriers like Southwest. Photo: Denver International Airport

Denver Airport CEO optimistic about the airport’s future

Notwithstanding a tough 2020, Denver Airport’s Kim Day is cautiously optimistic about the airport’s short to medium term.

“As we look to the future, Denver is positioned well financially and has a strong domestic network that will help us continue our recovery,” Ms Day says.

Meanwhile, what United States airports are pipping Denver to the post? While the results aren’t officially out, it looks like Atlanta and Dallas Fort Worth will take the top spots when it comes to passenger numbers in 2020.