Denver International: America's Most Inconvenient Airport

by Dave Kopel

March 1993. Also by Kopel on the same subject:

Pena's New Airport Still a Failure. February 19, 1997. New Democrat Airport. The American Enterprise. March/April 1996.

The common abbreviation for newly-opened Denver International Airport is DIA. But to comply with truth in labeling, the abbreviation really ought to be MIA. Because the new airport is the Most Inconvenient Airport in the United States.

First, the good news. If you are connecting through Denver and plan not to leave your concourse, it's a very pretty airport. There are marble floors (thanks to Washington's generous donation of your tax dollars). There are enough shops for the airport to qualify as a mall. How many other airports have a chiropractor's office?

Your baggage transfer will probably go just fine. The infamous luggage-eating automatic bag system never worked, but it has been replaced with a tug-and-cart operation that is doing fine.

If you plan to leave the airport, however, then you're in a heap of trouble.

First of all, MIA is further from downtown than any airport in the United States except Dulles Airport in Washington. Dulles, at least, has a high-speed airport-only highway for most of the trip to the airport. In contrast, the major access road to MIA, Interstate 70, is frequently jammed, with jams having gotten much worse in recent weeks as a result of airport traffic.

Once you exit the interstate, the airport access road, Pena Boulevard is also frequently at full capacity. There is talk of widening the access highway from two lanes in each direction to three; but as a cost-saving measure (the airport was billions over budget) certain overpasses were built for two lanes only, with no expansion possible.

If you plan to skip the aggravation of driving and instead take a cab, bring a money belt. Before the cab even exits the airport toll gates, the ride will cost ten dollars.

As at Dulles, you have to ride a shuttle to get from the main terminal to your gate. Unlike Dulles, you have to ride up and down three different escalators to use the shuttle. The MIA shuttle runs less frequently than the Dulles shuttles. The MIA shuttle, a subway, is often as crowded as the New York City subway, and like the New York subway, you may find that there is no room on the train you want to ride, so you'll have to wait for the next one. Additional train cars have already been ordered, but they won't arrive for another year.

Back when MIA was nothing more than a bad idea, proponents claimed that the new airport would work great in foul weather. In snow conditions, MIA has done fine. Yet in just a single week in March, three of the five runways had to be shut down on three different days because the airport can't operate at full capacity with high winds from the wrong direction. Flights were delayed an hour or more. And this airport that can't operate during high winds is located in a high wind region.

Parking at MIA? Both garages are often jammed as full as the Mile High Stadium parking lot five minutes before kick-off for a Broncos game. Plan on using one of the outlying, uncovered lots, and walking a long way to get to the terminal. There is currently no commercial, long-term parking at MIA, since it so far away from anything else.

While passengers who connect through Denver are not being charged extra, ticket prices for round-trips to and from Denver have gone through the roof to pay for the new airport. For example, a round-trip advance purchase ticket from Denver International to Austin on America West costs $439. If you instead fly out of the Colorado Springs airport (about an hour south of suburban Denver), the cost is $309.

As William F. Buckley once quipped in a letter raising subscription prices for the National Review, "Remember, you're paying more, but you're getting less." Denver International has fewer gates and fewer runaways than Denver's convenient Stapleton Airport, which was legally required to close when MIA opened.

Although MIA was touted as the world's second-largest airport, it is actually smaller than Stapleton; MIA just sits on a large plot of vacant land. As Michael Fumento of the Competitive Enterprise Institute pointed out, calling a small airport on a huge plot of land "the world's second largest airport" is like putting a refrigerator in a convention center and calling it "the world's second largest kitchen."

Much of the criticism about MIA has been directed at Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, for bringing the airport to completion sixteen months late and thousands of millions of dollars over budget. And it is true that Mayor Webb handled airport business as if he were a Chicago alderman handing out garbage collection contracts.

But the real blame for all the design flaws at America's Most Inconvenient Airport lies with former Mayor Pena, the mastermind of MIA, and currently the US Secretary of Transportation. The air traffic problems at convenient Stapleton Airport in Denver (now closed, to prevent competition with MIA) could have been solved by building an additional runway on vacant land at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal (an abandoned federal chemical weapons facility that adjoins Stapleton).

Transportation Secretary Pena calls Denver International "the crown jewel in the nation's transportation system." From a distance, the airport's roof looks more like a circus tent than a crown. Visually intriguing as the roof is, it doesn't work; when it rains, the rain runs off the roof and onto people standing on sidewalks outside the airport.

The new airport, like its roof, was never designed for the convenience of the traveling public. Instead, DIA was Federico Pena's monument to himself, an illustration of why future airports should be built by private enterprise, rather than by ambitious politicians spending someone else's money.

Dave Kopel is Research Director of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado, and a frequent user of Denver International.

 

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