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DIA turns 20

Awaits light rail in 2016

Katie Feldhaus //June 2, 2015//

DIA turns 20

Awaits light rail in 2016

Katie Feldhaus //June 2, 2015//

When the iconic white tents of Denver International Airport first lined the sky in February 1995, many questioned its distance from downtown — 25 miles — especially compared to its predecessor, Stapleton International Airport, situated just three miles east of the city’s center.

According to Kim Day, CEO of DIA, Stapleton was maxed out on space with no room for development, and the move to the 53 square miles of what was then Adams County was the best opportunity for Colorado to build an airport for the future. Denver annexed the land for DIA in 1988 with approval from voters in Adams County.

“DIA empowered the future of Denver in the ’80s,” Day says. “It was an easier way to connect Denver to the rest of the world, and they couldn’t have done it without that land.” 

Twenty years later, DIA has grown from serving 31 million passengers in 1995 to 53.4 million last year, making it the fifth busiest airport in the nation.

Today, the airport generates more than $26 billion in economic impact for the state each year and supports nearly 190,000 jobs directly and indirectly. According to Day, 15 percent of Colorado’s total employment, in some way, relates to aviation.

And the biggest milestones for DIA are just around the corner, including the completion of the 519-room Westin Hotel and the commuter rail line connecting the airport to downtown Denver. The hotel is set to open this fall and the full-service train is slated to be up and running in spring of next year.  The 35-minute train ride from Denver Union Station to DIA will take off every 15 minutes during peak times.

“The commuter will be a great service to passengers and employees as it connects us directly to downtown Denver,” Day says. “And the hotel is a wonderful amenity that is long overdue.”

With the new developments and leases ending on many of the businesses at the airport, Day says they have changed the focus to give customers what they want.

“We have a robust mix of national and local brands and offer things that are unique to Denver, like Root Down and Elway’s,” Day says.

Businesses in the airport that are Colorado-centric, like Root Down, focus on bringing that local feel to incoming and outgoing travelers. Since opening in 2013, Root Down has made its mark at DIA, and owner Justin Cucci is proud of the location’s success.

“There was no blueprint for taking Root Down out there, and there were a number of challenges with things like food and staffing, but we have formed a strong team [at DIA] and it has been gangbusters,” Cucci says.

When the restaurateur was approached by Mission Yogurt Inc., an airport restaurant owner and operator, about opening an airport restaurant, he knew it would be a challenge but believed that with a good menu and design, he could make it work.

“The biggest challenge at DIA is maintaining a level of excellence in food, service and atmosphere,” Cucci says. “It takes a lot out there, but we fit square pegs into round holes all the time and we are flattered that it has taken off as well as it has.”

Bringing a restaurant to the airport is not an easy feat. DIA currently has 140 shops, restaurants and services that generated more than $322.8 million in revenue last year. The airport has added or updated 42 new concessions in the past two years and it plans to continue adding new concepts, like the microbrewery, Day says, planned for the base of the Westin Hotel.

Day intends to create more passenger experiences at the airport by incorporating things that people identify with Colorado, like outdoor lifestyle, entrepreneurship, and of course, craft beer.

 “The airport is a portal to the world for all of our citizens and businesses,” says Day. “We are adding new concepts to change the entire passenger experience from when you are driving on Pena (Boulevard) to when you get on the plane.”