Denver airport construction: project’s first phase completed
United and Southwest passengers at Denver International Airport will begin checking in using new self-serve bag-drops in the next two weeks. Then they’ll find their way to the security checkpoints without so many construction walls blocking their paths.
More than three years after DIA’s now-$770 million terminal renovation project kicked off, airport and city officials finally had reason to celebrate Wednesday — the completion of the project’s first phase. Construction isn’t nearly over yet, with a second, security-focused phase expected to last until early 2024. And a potential third phase could extend work still longer.
But extensive construction across the airport is beginning to bear fruit, both in the terminal and out on all three concourses, where expansions adding dozens of new gates are on track to open by spring. They’re arriving just as DIA’s fast recovery from the pandemic in terms of passenger traffic has ranked it as the third-busiest airport in the world this year, a distinction that’s brought growing pains for travelers.
“With (DIA’s) inevitable growth, it’s absolutely essential that we continue the momentum on this project,” airport CEO Phil Washington said before the first of two ribbon-cutting ceremonies to christen the new check-in areas. “We cannot stop here with Phase 1. We’ve got to finish and rebuild this entire terminal to accommodate the passenger volumes that we will see in the next five to 10 years.”
Amid the celebration, the rocky history of the Great Hall Project cast an unmistakable shadow. Under the original project timeline, airport officials would have been on the verge of celebrating the completion of the entire project right about now.
Instead, the festivities marked the first major milestone reached since DIA jettisoned the original project team two years ago. City leaders terminated Great Hall Partners, led by Madrid-based Ferrovial Airports, amid bickering over escalating costs and delays. The decision brought work to a halt until a new lead contractor, Hensel Phelps, could be hired, and also forced a reckoning with the project’s scope.
The centerpieces of the first phase are the new ticketing areas for Southwest, United and Frontier airlines in the terminal’s midsection, on both the east and west sides of Level 6. Crews extended the upper level’s floor plates farther into the tented atrium, making room for multi-sided check-in spaces and larger arrays of ticketing kiosks.
Crews also renovated nearly 160,000 existing square feet and added four restrooms.
Southwest will begin using its new spaces Nov. 4 and United will follow Nov. 10, the airport said. Frontier also will take over some of the new stations in coming months.
DIA says most of the remaining construction walls that cross the terminal on levels 5 and 6 will come down in the next two weeks, making it possible to trek north or south more easily.
Mayor Michael Hancock told the project officials and contractors assembled that he was “proud of what you’ve accomplished since March of 2020,” when Hensel Phelps took over the rebooted project. “And I’m confident in our ability to complete the project on time and, again, on budget. No: We will complete the project on time and within budget.”
There was a lot of such talk Wednesday, including that the first phase came in under budget. But those assertions require some finesse.
The Great Hall budget originally was $650 million, with $120 million set aside in a project contingency fund for unforeseen needs or mandates from the airlines and federal officials. After the project ran into trouble, airport leaders promised to keep it from exceeding the contingency money, or $770 million total.
So they scaled the project back, and Hancock and others were hailing the project’s track record only since then. And DIA is making plans to add back some of the excised work in a new phase, outside that budget.
For now, the revised second phase, which got underway over the summer, involves a floor expansion on Level 6 in the atrium’s northwest corner to make room for a new, larger security checkpoint that will replace the existing south checkpoint downstairs.
It does not include a second, parallel security move that would relocate the current north checkpoint to the northeast corner of the upper level and expand it. That was put on hold in the budget cuts.
Until earlier this year, that is.
DIA officials, citing the size and vulnerability of the two main security checkpoints as one of the project’s motivating factors, said in the spring that, with Hancock’s backing, they hoped to finish out security after all — in a project addition that would add significant new costs. To undertake that third phase, they would need City Council approval since it would require spending beyond the budget. DIA likely would cover that cost by committing its own future revenues.
Washington, who took charge at DIA in July, told reporters that he plans to detail the proposed new phase in November or early December.
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