Denver International Airport: A Gateway to the Rockies

June 4, 2023


Located on a sprawling 52.4-square-mile site 25 miles northeast of the city, Denver International Airport (DIA) holds the distinction of being the largest airport in North America by land area and the second-largest in the world. With its impressive tented terminal, DIA has become one of the nation's top air hubs, contributing significantly to Denver's prominence as a major player in the aviation industry. Since its opening in 1995, DIA has steadily climbed the ranks to become the fifth-busiest airport in the United States. As of 2020, it stands as the eighteenth-busiest airport globally. This monumental transportation hub, employing over 35,000 individuals, has not only transformed Colorado's employment landscape but also triggered a construction boom in the northeast metro Denver area. By providing enhanced access to not only Colorado but also the entire Rocky Mountain region, DIA solidifies Denver's influence over a vast hinterland.

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Origins: Denver's Transportation Dominance

Denver and Colorado have always relied on robust transportation systems to assert their dominance over the Rocky Mountain region. The city's rise to prominence as a regional hub began with the advent of railroads, propelling Denver to the second-largest population among western cities by 1890, trailing only behind San Francisco. However, throughout the twentieth century, Denver faced challenges in maintaining its position, losing ground to emerging Sunbelt cities such as Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Diego. The 1980s oil bust dealt a severe blow to Denver and Colorado, resulting in a population decline while cities like Kansas City, San Antonio, Sacramento, San Jose, and Portland experienced growth.

A New Airport for Colorado's Recovery

In response to these challenges, Denver Mayor Federico Peña and Colorado Governor Roy Romer recognized the critical role of transportation, particularly the need for a new airport, in revitalizing Colorado's economy. Denver's Stapleton International Airport, originally established in 1929 as Denver Municipal Airport, had reached its limits. Despite expansions over the years, Stapleton struggled to keep up with the growing demands of passenger service.

The inspiration for Denver's grandiose airport scheme came from Dallas-Fort Worth's 1973 airport, which had transformed the region and soared to become the world's fourth-busiest airport. Witnessing the success of DFW, Denver looked to emulate its achievements. Furthermore, Salt Lake City emerged as a formidable competitor after Delta Airlines made it their western hub, intensifying the need for Denver to act. The threat posed by Salt Lake City was further underscored by aggressive marketing campaigns and even a new license plate flaunting Utah's ski resorts.

The Case for a New Airport

Faced with stiff competition and the long-term economic benefits of a new airport, proponents in Denver were determined to make their case. A panel of business and civic leaders conducted an in-depth analysis, drawing parallels between Denver's economy and those of regional centers like Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta. They found that new airports had played a pivotal role in attracting business and spurring economic growth in these cities. Proponents argued that the revenue generated from landing fees, concession rentals, parking fees, and other airport-related sources would more than cover the costs, making the airport a financially viable venture. Denver's future hung in the balance, with proponents asserting that failure to replace Stapleton International would result in lost business opportunities to rival cities.

Overcoming Challenges: Selecting the Ideal Location

Deciding on the location for the colossal new airport presented a significant challenge. Some advocated for expanding the existing Stapleton International Airport by utilizing the vacated Rocky Mountain Arsenal on its north edge. However, concerns about contamination and insufficient infrastructure led to the rejection of this option. Eventually, after considering various alternatives, a site in Adams County, 25 miles northeast of downtown Denver, was chosen as the location for the new airport. This decision sparked controversy and opposition from various quarters.

Opposition to the New Airport

Opponents of the new airport raised several concerns. One of their primary arguments was that the relocation of the airport would increase traffic congestion and automobile pollution. Moving the airport thirteen miles away from the city center would lead to longer travel times for passengers and contribute to increased reliance on private vehicles. Critics argued that Denver would be the first city ever to abandon a major functioning airport and expressed worries that the new airport would draw businesses, conventions, and tourists away from the urban core, diverting economic activity to the northern and eastern suburbs.

Another concern raised by critics focused on the financial viability of the project. They pointed out that Continental and United, DIA's two major carriers, were facing financial troubles. Skeptics speculated that these airlines might choose to shift their hubs from Denver to more cost-effective airports, undermining the success of the new facility. Continental and United even threatened legal action to halt the construction, citing excessive landing fees that would burden both the airlines and their customers.

Furthermore, critics argued that the estimated cost of $1.9 billion for the airport was grossly underestimated. They contended that this figure did not account for additional expenses such as highways and light rail connections to the airport, airline equipment costs, and the cleanup costs associated with the abandoned Stapleton airport. They also questioned Denver's claim that they could sell the Stapleton site for $100 million, suggesting that this valuation was unrealistic.

Support for the New Airport

Despite the opposition, Denver International Airport had its fair share of supporters, often referred to as "yea-sayers." The airport received approval from Adams County voters in 1988 and from Denver residents in 1989, with significant support from business and political figures. Proponents highlighted the economic benefits and the potential for Denver to establish itself as a transportation hub for the nation.

Governor Romer, in particular, championed the airport project, declaring it as the single most important economic decision that the state would make in the next 20 years. He envisioned the airport as a gateway that would position Colorado as a leading transportation hub in the country, bringing in business and propelling the state's economy forward.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also supported the construction of the new airport. Recognizing the limitations of Stapleton and the congestion issues within the national air network, the FAA endorsed the project in 1989. They emphasized the necessity of a new facility to alleviate flight delays and hazardous congestion. The FAA approved the final Environmental Impact Statement and provided $60 million in funding for the groundbreaking of Denver International Airport.


The development of Denver International Airport was not without its share of opposition and skepticism. Critics raised concerns about increased traffic, pollution, financial viability, and the potential loss of business from existing carriers. However, proponents argued that a new airport was crucial for Denver's economic growth and competitiveness. They believed that the benefits of enhanced transportation infrastructure, increased business opportunities, and improved connectivity outweighed the challenges and justified the construction of DIA.

Ultimately, Denver International Airport became a reality and has since played a significant role in shaping Denver's status as a prominent regional and international air hub. It has attracted passengers, businesses, and tourism to the region, fueling economic growth and establishing Denver as a transportation leader in the Rocky Mountain region and beyond.

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