Rocky Mountain Fly
At Denver International Airport, a vision for rapid growth and global connections is getting a lift from new federal transportation funding and local innovations.
By Phillip A. Washington, Chief Executive Officer | Denver International Airport
The passage of the bi-partisan infrastructure bill last fall was a major step for the country and a boost for all of us at Denver International Airport. The IIJA brings a historic level of funding as well as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reshape our transportation system. I am personally delighted about this bill because I was honored to serve as co-chair of the Biden-Harris Infrastructure Policy Committee during their campaign, and later as captain of their transportation transition teams. This allowed me to help draft some of the policies that contributed to this historic investment in transportation.
Looking at airports across the U.S., you will find many that are a half-century or even a century old. The newest among them is Denver International, which opened in 1995. This airport was originally designed to serve 50 million passengers a year, which was a highly ambitious target in 1995. But, by 2019 the airport was serving 69.5 million passengers, and in 2022 we’re forecasting 72.8 million. This rising tide of passengers, while welcome, is putting strain on every facet of our operation, which will be eased to a degree by the influx of federal funding for airports.
Global growth trends
The growth opportunities for Denver International Airport are tremendous. In fact, we envision serving 100 million passengers annually in the not-too-distant future. But, more broadly, air travel in general will increase dramatically in the next 15 to 20 years. Several factors will drive this growth:
- Rising global population – The world’s population is anticipated to rise from about 8 billion today to more than 9 billion by 2040.
- Urbanization – Alongside this increase, a greater percentage of people will be living in cities: More than half of the world’s population now live in urban areas, and that’s projected to rise to 68% by 2050.
- Technology – There is incredible innovation happening in aviation technology, which will reduce air travel time significantly in the future.
- Climate impacts – At the same time, progress in formulating sustainable aviation fuel has the potential to reduce environmental impacts of airplane flights.
- Social advancement – Running in parallel, you see improving quality of life for people in developing countries, specifically on the continents of Asia and Africa.
Taken together, these factors are certain to drive increased air travel globally. The challenge and the opportunity for Denver International Airport is to position itself and make the right investments to effectively serve this growth.
Vision 100: Let’s grow
We have a strategic plan called Vision 100. The essence of this plan is to effectively serve 100 million passengers annually at this airport in the next 8 to 10 years or so. Our plan has four pillars, all mutually supportive:
- Powering Our People– supporting those who work at the airport and the community members who want to be part of our team today or in the future.
- Growing Our Infrastructure– building the new facilities needed to serve 100 million annual passengers.
- Maintaining What We Have– taking care of our aging airport and managing wear and tear from increasing passenger traffic. We are strengthening “the bones,” baggage claim, asset management, etc.
- Expanding Our Global Connections– leveraging our mid-continental location and land holdings to expand our air service network and cargo operations to serve more markets such as Africa.
All of these aspects of Vision 100 are moving forward thanks to the hard work of our employees, contractors and stakeholder partners.
As the numbers of flights and passengers increase, we must build more capacity. We currently have six runways, including the longest in the country. We are going to open 39 new gates by the end of this year. We are planning a seventh runway and have land available for 12 runways. As passengers arrive, they will come through a new, expanded Great Hall, and a range of enhanced facilities that deliver a positive experience.
It is important that we create an efficient process for travelers, so working in partnership with TSA we are already looking at innovations – biometrics, touchless processes, etc. – for swift, safe security checks.
We are building the Center of Equity and Excellence in Aviation (CEEA), a first-of-its-kind center that will help underserved communities and prepare current and future employees for careers in aviation. Programs will be housed right here at the airport, with offerings related to career pathways, development training and research and innovation. We also are putting together a multi-agency exchange program with other airports. We are very excited about this concept, and it is moving forward well.
Sustainability and electrification
Climate change is a critical concern that demands a response. We will develop strategies that will transform us into the most sustainable airport in the world. Already, we have become the first airport to achieve international certification for an environmental management system across our operations. We are making sure that the design and construction of new facilities will meet green building standards while also increasing resiliency.
We are making renewable energy and electrification a priority, as well. Denver has one of the largest renewable energy programs of any airport in the world, with nine solar arrays. We are transitioning our fleet to electric vehicles, and we now provide more than 50 EV charging stations for passengers and employees. Meanwhile, we permanently ceased oil and gas operations at the airport by plugging about 50 inactive wells, using environmentally sound methods.
Data drives results
Like every other airport, we want to gather as much data as possible to help fuel top performance. Therefore, we have connected Vision 100 with strategic objectives and performance measures for every department, operation and concession. We are tracking specific metrics so we know exactly where we are and how well we are doing. Importantly, metrics are tied to the performance evaluations of individuals responsible for particular areas. This helps to instill an accountability culture, driven by results rather than activities. It frees people to innovate and do their best work.
Today, we like to think we are different, more savvy, but I believe we are just as likely to be astounded by future developments as our great-grandparents must have been. In fact, I read a prediction that 50 years from now about three-quarters of everyday infrastructure will consist of things that don’t exist today.
This is a humbling idea, but it also should inspire us to look forward with open minds and to innovate bravely as conditions change.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Phillip A. Washington was appointed as Chief Executive Officer of Denver International Airport (DEN) in July 2021 and has since guided the airport’s emergence as the world’s 7th busiest, by passengers. Previously, from March 2015 to May 2021, he was CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, an 11,000-employee agency that transported 1.2 million boarding passengers daily on a fleet of clean-air buses and six rail lines. Before L.A., Mr. Washington served as CEO of Denver Regional Transportation District (2009 to 2015) following a decade of experience at RTD as assistant general manager. As CEO, he oversaw the nation’s first and still only $2.2 billion rail transit public-private partnership.
Originally from Chicago’s South Side, Mr. Washington is a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Army, where he held the rank of Command Sergeant Major, the highest non-commissioned officer rank an enlisted soldier can achieve. He retired from active duty, is a disabled veteran and was awarded the prestigious Defense Superior Service Medal for his service to the nation. Mr. Washington holds a B.A. in Business from Columbia College, an M.A. in Management from Webster University and is a graduate of the Harvard University Kennedy School for Senior Executives in State and Local Government.