Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 
Denver's Folly
How NOT to Build an Airport
By David G. Young 

DENVER, December 30, 1997 --  

F or over three years I have heard stories about the grandiose new Denver International Airport. I'd heard that it was billions of dollars over budget and was sprawled across an area twice the size of Manhattan. While I knew the airport was big, I was totally unprepared for the experience in store for me when I arrived last week. I found DIA so sluggish and dehumanizing that I will go out of my way to avoid it in the future.

The statistics available on the airport's web page paint a picture of an efficient, modern, hi-tech facility.1 These statistics ignore the massive inefficiencies inherent to an airport of this size. Bags must be moved over a mile from the airplanes to the carousels. Once a traveler arrives on the airport grounds, he must drive an additional 12 miles before he reaches the terminal. To transport people from remote gates to the main hall, a heavy-rail line had to be built to close the distance. To add insult to injury, a loudspeaker condescendingly herds ant-like passengers onto the train with nursery school music.

Three years ago when the airport opened, city officials downplayed the airport's massive size and even more massive price tag by stressing its innovative, futuristic features. While it is true that DIA is the newest major airport in the United States, the harsh reality is that it has perhaps the most regressive design of all. DIA may have lots of modern bells and whistles, but the facility's hugely centralized plan is more reminiscent of archaic Soviet industrialism than today's decentralized high-tech era.

The design of the airport attempted to take into account the fast growth of air travel in the United States. Between 1981 and 1996, the number of domestic air trips more than doubled.2 Forecasts call for this growth to continue. Because of this growth, designers intended to eliminate incessant delays at Denver's old Stapleton International Airport by replacing it with the much larger DIA.

The problem with this solution is that it ignored the fundamental forces behind the increase in domestic air travel. Deregulation in the 1970s and 80s led to far less expensive ticket prices. Air travel therefore became cost-competitive with bus and train travel, while remaining far more advantageous in terms of speed. Thus, travelers replaced their train and bus tickets with plane tickets and precipitated the need for more airport facilities. While DIA meets the need for these new facilities, it defeats the purpose of them by adding significant overhead to airline travel. On a recent trip out of Denver, it took me more time to travel from the airport entrance to the airplane than it took to fly 600 miles to Omaha. When the additional overhead of local transfers and early check-in delays are added, the total time for the trip approached the time to drive between the cities.

Had Denver chosen a solution that was more forward-looking, an additional airport would have been built on the other side of town to supplement -- not replace -- Stapleton's existing facilities. Distributing smaller airports over a geographically dispersed metropolitan area is a far more efficient way of transporting individuals to their desired destinations. This is clearly is a preferred path for future airport construction.

Given the continued growth of domestic airline travel, the United States will undoubtedly need to construct many new airfields in the next several decades. The airline industry must produce a growth strategy to avoid repeating the mistakes made in Denver. A truly visionary plan would seek to overcome NIMBY attitudes toward building new airports, while expanding scheduled airline facilities at existing small airstrips. Such a plan would also seek conversion of existing military airfields with a bias toward commercial rather than Pentagon interests.

The world needs more airports, not bigger airports. Let's just hope DIA's designers don't get a chance to influence future airport construction. If they do, we'll likely end up with a single megalithic airport serving the entire planet, located in the most remote region in the world. All other airports would be required to close, and the new world airport would offer airline flights only to destinations within its own grounds.

Hyperbole, maybe. But try convincing me of that the next time I'm in the Denver airport.

1. Denver International Airport, 1997   
2. Air Transport Association, 1996