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The vision for what is now Denver International Airport came into focus earlier than you think

From concept to reality, the flight path to DIA wasn't always direct
Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-28 07:45:25-05

DENVER — Twenty-five years ago, United Airlines Flight 1474 from Colorado Springs touched down at Denver International Airport, marking the first flight to arrive at the newly-opened facility.

DIA began operations on February 28, 1995, nearly two years behind schedule and $2 billion over budget. Twenty-five years later, the largest airport in North America (by total land area) has become an indispensable part of Denver and the state’s economy.

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But the state-of-the-art international airport on the edge of the Great Plains didn’t take off right away. The need for a facility like DIA began showing itself as early as the 1960s, when what was then Stapleton International Airport started to burst at the seams and began looking for a way to expand.

Stapleton International Airport running out of room

Stapleton International Airport was where air travelers in Denver went if they needed to catch a commercial flight. The airport opened in 1929 and served the area for more than 65 years. The site of the former airport is now home to more than 7,000 Stapleton neighborhood residents.

But Stapleton International Airport — originally called Denver Municipal Airport until 1944 — was quickly running out of space to accommodate the area’s fast growth and the rise of commercial air travel in the dawn of the jet age.

This 1966 photo of Stapleton (looking west) shows concourses A, B, and C. The airport would later expand and add two additional concourses.

No matter what the city did, the airport never seemed big enough. Lousy weather and inadequate runways were always causing delays. Increased flights meant an increase in noise pollution, and people living near the airport started to demand the airport be moved.

In the early 1960s, airport officials began looking north to the broad swath of land owned by the U.S. Army – Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a chemical weapons plant. On January 22, 1962, the city submitted a formal request for 1,355 acres of surplus arsenal land for future Stapleton Airport needs.

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This time-lapse (1984-2017) shows Stapleton International Airport go from a massive international airport to a bustling community that is home to 21 schools and 1,100 acres of parks and open space.

The mayor of Denver at the time of the city's 1962 request, Richard Batterton, said failure of the airport to acquire the land would "lead to the ultimate obsolescence of a $40 million investment in airport facilities," the Rocky Mountain News reported.

But the dream of expanding Stapleton onto the promised land was turning into a nightmare. Adams County, where the arsenal was located, was threatening legal action to block Denver from expanding Stapleton's runways.

If you build it, they will come

Perhaps the first time Denver International Airport (or the concept) began to take shape in the minds of planners and the public was as early as 1973, when attendees at a public hearing at the Jefferson County courthouse heard what consultants presented as a pressing need.

Denver must expand Stapleton or build another airport as quickly as possible, was the message the San Francisco-based consultant group, Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co, gave the audience that night. The group was commissioned by the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) to study the future of air travel in the region.

The San Francisco firm presented the public three options: Expand Stapleton, build a new airport on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal or build an entirely new facility on land northeast of Stapleton — about where DIA currently sits. The DRCOG wanted the new airport to be located southwest or southeast of central Denver to spur economic growth in those areas. But Dan G. Haney, the Denver project manager for the consulting group, said they focused on three possible locations, and they were all in the northeast metro area.

The cost to build a new airport by the year 2000 was projected to be $615 million in 1973 dollars, as reported in a November 13, 1973, Denver Post article. Two other alternatives — the "do-nothing approach" and the construction of a second airport that would operate along with Stapleton — were eliminated, the firm told the crowd.

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This time-lapse (1984-2017) shows the construction of Denver International Airport. The area can be seen go from farmland to the world's largest airport.

During the presentation, consultants warned that action would need to be taken soon, as the construction of a new airport would take from six to 12 years to complete. The group projected that by the year 2000, Denver would see a ten-fold increase in air traffic over 1970 traffic.

"If the airports aren't expanded, who will be penalized? Air travelers and pilots and aviation-related economy of Denver," said Haney.

The decision to build an entirely new airport rather than continue to expand Stapleton increasingly became the favored alternative. The vision for what is now Denver International Airport began to come into focus at this point. But it would be another decade before the project started gaining lift.

Adams County threatens to build its own international airport

Many of us flying out of DIA will often remark on how long it takes to get out to the airport — the old "DIA is located in Kansas" joke is uttered at least once during the ride. But if Adams County went with a proposal to build its own international airport, that "Kansas" joke may have instead been a "Missouri" joke.

Fast forward to the mid-1980s — Denver wanted to annex the land from Adams County to build DIA, but Adams County was reluctant to allow the annex to go through over concerns of increased noise, pollution, traffic and other issues. They were also not so keen on the location Denver picked. Some Adams County residents preferred a site near Watkins or Bennett, according to a Rocky Mountain News article from 1986.

In that same article, it was reported that negotiations between the City and County of Denver and Adams County were coming to a standstill, and Adams County officials began to seriously look into the idea of building its own international airport – its own "Stapleton."

The airport proposing to take on the role as a regional hub for national and international passenger flights? Colorado Air and Space Port, which was known as Front Range Airport back then. In 1986, the airport authority presented their idea to take on Denver to the Adams County Commission.

Front Range Airport is, and was at the time, a small general-aviation airport located in Watkins. It wasn’t able to handle regularly-scheduled passenger service, let alone serve as a bustling international airport. But the plan was to “tear down that general-aviation airport and replace it with a new international airport,” according to a Rocky Mountain News report.

However, there was one major problem with the idea of a competing Adams County airport: the airlines. United Airlines, which operates a hub out of DIA, was already committed to the new airport Denver wanted to build. The county admitted that support of the airlines would be crucial if "Adams County International Airport" were to ever take off. However, the plan was ultimately scrapped. County commissioners decided it wouldn’t be a viable option and agreed that working with Denver made more sense.

The dream of Mayor Federico Pena becomes a reality

In 1983, Denver elected Federico Peña — the city’s first Hispanic mayor — and he quickly began pushing for construction on a new international airport to begin. But before the airport could be built, the land on which it is constructed would have to be sorted out.

Over the next five years, a list of some six location sites for the proposed airport was whittled down to a parcel of land east of Rocky Mountain Arsenal, where DIA currently sits. Next came approval from Adams County voters, giving Denver the OK to move ahead and annex the land.

Construction of Denver International Airport as seen in 1992.

In 1989, federal funding started coming in, and construction on Denver International Airport was underway. After several delays, an opening date was set: May 15, 1994. But about a month before the scheduled 1994 opening, an embarrassing display of the airport's new automated baggage system caused then-Mayor Wellington Webb to postpone the opening again.

On February 28, 1995, the $4.8 billion (equivalent to $8.3 billion in 2020) airport opened to the public. Denver International Airport came from a realization early on that the Mile High City needed a state-of-the-art facility if Denver was going to continue to soar. And after years of planning, bickering and meetings, Denver finally got its airport.