Airport and Aviation Marketing Special Report


The Eerie Isolation of Denver International Airport

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DENVER ( -- "The tendency in airport gestalt is toward ever-greater autonomy,” architect Rem Koolhaas once wrote. “Sometimes, they're even practically unrelated to a specific, generic city. Becoming bigger and bigger, equipped with more and more
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facilities unconnected to travel, they are on the way to replacing the city. The in-transit condition is becoming more universal. Together, airports contain populations of millions -- plus the largest daily workforce.”

The words seemed to take on new meaning for me as my ATA flight lowered for its approach toward the incredible 53-square-mile expanse of the Colorado Piedmont, across which sprawls the Denver International Airport. Making the scene below all the more otherworldly were was the central cluster of enormous tent-like buildings that could well pass for the exotic encampment of some alien race in a George Lucas science fiction epic.

Invisible City
It’s easy to sound glib when describing airports as “invisible cities” on the edges of the ones we call home. But the vast, isolated facilities of DIA deserve the title -- a decade after opening, it still sits well beyond city limits, protected by four miles of farmland in every direction to prevent Denver’s suburbs from creeping too close. DIA was the last American airport built from scratch (and had been the first since Dallas-Ft. Worth opened 22 years earlier) and may well be the last for another two decades. Just as the mega-airports of Asia -- Hong Kong, Seoul and Osaka -- were built on islands reclaimed from the ocean, DIA itself is an island reclaimed from the plains.

Although it serves Denver -- and is in fact a city agency -- the airport’s directors have realized that DIA’s future depends on self-sufficiency and less reliance on the entities it serves -- those mercurial, endangered species known as airlines. During a tour of DIA’s concourses, Airport Property Officer Pete Gingras explained its economics to me. DIA breaks even on its revenue from the airlines -– landing fees, rent, etc. -- while posting a substantial profit (technically “revenues in excess of expenses,” as DIA is a nonprofit) of $70 million on revenues of $166 million last year, including $31 million from concessions and advertising alone.

Denver International Airport's central terminal is a vast tent-like structure made all the more exotic by nighttime lighting.

Revenues are expected to rise 10% this year, as the low-fare slugging match between Ted and Frontier boosts traffic and drives concessions. Thanks to that cash-flow, Gingras said, DIA is debt-free and able to finance future expansion without taxpayer dollars. (The airport cost $4 billion to build in the first place.) It’s also theoretically able to lower the airlines’ fees as an encouragement for them to stick around.

Marketing design guidelines
The facility has just issued new design guidelines for the retail marketers and restaurants in terminals (“We think good design can boost sales 15% to 30%, so it’s really about ROI [return on investment], not just a whim,” Gingras said) and the airport staff is constantly searching for ways to bring in new businesses and tap new revenue streams. DIA even farms the surrounding 16,000 acres with wheat, millet and a sunflower seed field that brought in $300,000 worth last year and drills for oil and natural gas on the property ($1.8 million in 2004, and the airport is planning to drill more wells).

The airport has its own full-sized post office and recruiting center. The concessionaires must constantly replace employees who burn out on the 30-minute commute from Denver, the shuttle buses from employee parking lots, the background checks (the FBI combs back through the last 10 years of each applicant’s past), and the daily crawl through the thick membrane of security. The joke here is that when an employee misses four days but shows up on the fifth, the managers high-five them and thank them for coming back.

Quizno's highest-grossing outlet
But those who

stick around -- employees and concessionaires alike -- are encouraged to experiment. When the franchiser Quizno’s Sandwiches took over its first and only (and now it’s highest-grossing) outlet here, the airport encouraged the chain to open a slightly higher-end bistro offering sit-down meals. “You can’t be everything to everyone in the restaurant business, but in airports, you have to,” said Pete Pflum, vice president of airport operations for Quizno’s.

When the snow begins falling in the winter, each week brings the possibility of being snowed in, forcing the airport to take the final step, if only for a few days, toward total self-reliance. In March 2003, when a blizzard dumped seven feet of snow on each square inch of the mylar-coated roof, the tent began to sag dangerously, forcing its evacuation. There was nowhere to go for 8,000 stranded passengers but deeper into the terminals (the highways leading to the airport were snowed shut). “It’s never 8-to-5 here, ever,” Pflum said.

Airport's own urban sprawl
The decision by DIA’s master planners to keep the airport separate from the city for at least another decade means there is nothing but Airworld for literally miles around. I chose to stay at the hotel closest to the airport, a Ramada tucked inside a pocket of urban sprawl that would not exist without the nearby airport.

This is Airworld’s suburb, which we commute to via shuttle buses that scoop up guests for a half dozen different hotels at a time -- the Courtyard by Marriott, the La Quinta, the Days Inn -- underscoring their essential interchangeability (or at the very least their common ownership by a local franchisee.) “Holiday Inn Express or Holiday Inn Airport?” my driver asked one passenger. “Which number did you call?” “I don’t remember,” the rider replied wearily. “That was so long ago.”

Out here, we’re reduced for the night to the sum of our

During Colorado blizzards, travelers are trapped inside DIA's tented terminal and cut off from the distant city of Denver.
brand preferences and loyalty programs. Hertz, Avis or Budget? The Embassy Suites or the Radisson? Dinner at Bennigan’s or the Village Inn? Which one are you? Does it matter? One night, lying in bed, I flipped through a booklet listing every Ramada in the world, and landed on the one at Narita, the international airport outside Tokyo. Narita was once farmland, too, before the Japanese government declared eminent domain and began building. That Ramada and mine must be sisters, I thought. (My stay at my Ramada was comped by the general manager after a few unsuccessful attempts to arrange an interview about his usual customers.)

Compression equipment salesman
I walked across the highway the first night for a drink at Bennigan’s. Sitting next to me at the bar was Pete Kourkoubes, a silver-haired salesman for Toromont, a manufacturer of gas compression equipment, who was on the road and eating dinner with a younger colleague. They were in town for a 12-hour meeting that had let out only a half hour before, “and this was the first thing we found,” he said. “This might be the only thing around, we thought.”

He lives in Houston (“I moved there so I wouldn't fly as much -- only 50 times a year now instead of 100.”), flies Continental, likes renting from Hertz (“There’s no paperwork, and I’m gone.”) and was staying at the La Quinta with a corporate rate.

"I have around 300,000 miles,” he said, “and I can't use them fast enough. I probably have a few free hotel stays somewhere, but I'll never get around to using those, either. When you're home, you never really want to travel.”

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