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DIA Still Climbing 20 Years After Takeoff

Celebrating its 20th year in 2015, Denver International Airport adds a commuter rail connection and its first hotel. Opened 16 months behind schedule on Feb. 28, 1995 at a cost of $4.8 billion, the airport still carries $4.4 billion of debt, according to Moody’s Investors Service. DIA has grown from serving 31 million passengers in 1995 to a record 53.4 million passengers in 2014. It remains the largest and newest commercial airport in the United States, with room to double its current capacity. Image: DIA.

The Jeppesen Terminal’s tent-like roof became an instant signature for Denver International Airport. Designed by Fentress Bradburn Architects and installed in 1992, the fabric roof uses a steel cable support system similar to that of the Brooklyn Bridge. The 15 acres of stretched white Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric draped over 34 masts requires occasional cleaning with special chemicals by specially trained crews. Image: DIA.

The key culprit in DIA’s late opening in 1995 was an automated baggage system that was the first of its kind and deemed a complete failure. The delay added $560 million to the cost of the airport. To open the airport, DIA had to scrap the system and return to a traditional system involving cargo tugs traversing the tunnels. Image: DIA.

A construction worker stands high atop the hotel as construction continues in 2014. Interrupted by occasional bad weather, the new Westin Hotel was expected to open in time for the 20th anniversary on Feb. 28 but is now expected to open in 2016. Image: DIA.

The structure of the wing-shaped Denver International Airport Hotel fills out in 2014. Denver issued $763 million of subordinate-lien bonds for the project in July 2013 with ratings of A2 by Moody's Investors Service, A-plus by Standard & Poor's, and A by Fitch Ratings. Moody’s questioned the use of airport revenue for a project that was not considered part of DIA’s core service. Image: DIA.

A worker walks atop the glass canopy of the commuter rail transit station that adjoins the Westin Hotel in 2014. The 519-room hotel is one of three projects under construction at one time. In addition to the rail station and hotel, a public plaza will provide entertainment, art and restaurants. Image: DIA

The Regional Transportation District’s airport rail line began testing in April. The electrified commuter rail line will cover nearly 23 miles between Denver International Airport and downtown Denver in 2016. The East Corridor is part of the Eagle P3, a $2.2 billion capital project comprised of federal funds, RTD sales tax bonds and private equity from the concessionaire team, Denver Transit Partners. Eagle P3 received a $1.03 billion Full Funding Grant Agreement from the Federal Transit Administration in 2011. Image: DIA.

The train to DIA will dock just outside the Westin Hotel, following the 35-minute trip from the city’s downtown Union Station. The subsidized hotel drew opposition from nearby hoteliers, while the rail line creates competition for the rental car and parking facilities. Image: DIA.

When Denver International Airport opened in 1994, United and Continental airlines were hub carriers. Continental soon withdrew, but the airlines later merged. United in 2014 extended its lease by 10 years in exchange for cost concessions from the airport. United remains the dominant carrier, but Southwest Airlines and Frontier have significant DIA operations. Image: DIA.

Denver International Airport was buried in snow on Dec. 22, 2006, resulting in flight delays and cancellations. Despite the blizzards that sometimes sweep the Mile High City, airport closures are rare. DIA was designed to overcome the reputation of its predecessor Stapleton International Airport as a risky place to make a connecting flight.

Snowplows work to clear aprons in a snowstorm at Denver International Airport. After a 2006 blizzard closed the airport, DIA revamped its snow-clearing operations, reducing the time it took to clear a runway to 13 minutes from the previous 45 minutes. Image: DIA.

Denver International Airport’s automated people mover shuttles thousands of passengers from the main terminal to three concourses. Only Terminal A can be reached on foot. Artwork decorates the walls of the train tunnels. Image: DIA.

Concourse B serving United Airlines is the busiest at Denver International Airport, which ranks as the fifth busiest in the United States. United’s 10-year extension of its contract gives the airport breathing space as it seeks to attract new carriers. Image: DIA.

Denver International Airport generated more than $322.8 million in gross concessions revenue in 2014, marking the second consecutive year of record-setting sales. The revenue translates to an average of $12.07 per enplaned passenger in 2014. Chief executive Kim Day said the opening of the Westin Hotel in 2016 will add significantly to retail revenue. Image: DIA.

“Blue Mustang,” a sculpture by Luis Jimenez has generated controversy since its installation at Denver International Airport in 2008. Jimenez was killed in his New Mexico studio on June 13, 2006, when a large section of Blue Mustang fell on him, severing an artery in his leg. The 9,000-pound sculpture, nicknamed “Blucifer,” is valued at $2 million. Image: DIA.

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