Flying out of DIA? The long security lines are real. And ‘the holiday season will be tough’

Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington asked for patience during the passenger surge, saying the airport was struggling to meet demand due to capacity limits and labor shortages in almost every department.

Passengers throng the Great Hall at Denver International Airport as they wait to pass through the south security checkpoint on Friday, October 22, 2021.

Passengers throng the Great Hall at Denver International Airport as they wait to pass through the south security checkpoint on Friday, October 22, 2021.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Matt Bloom

Lizzie Johnson describes her most recent trip through Denver International Airport as “stressful, to say the least.” She’s flown in and out of the airport for decades, but this time was different.

When the Denver resident arrived at DIA on October 15 with her husband and two kids, the TSA security line wrapped all the way through the baggage claim area and beyond, she said. At one point, she and her husband got separated in the crowd and had to call each other to link back up.

“There were lines and confused people everywhere,” Johnson said. “I’ve never seen it that packed.”

Passenger traffic has bounced back sharply at DIA since the pandemic began, leading to record long security wait times and parking bottlenecks at the airport. The airport is currently seeing the fastest recovery of any U.S. hub, according to DIA leadership.

Flight records show more than 24 million passengers passed through the airport between January and June. The numbers remain high and are projected to surpass pre-pandemic levels by early next year.

Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington said new airline check-in areas will have an official opening the last week of October. Washington held a press conference Friday, October 22, 2021, to address long lines, crowded gates and security areas, and construction areas. He likened the situation to remodeling a house while its being lived in.

Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington said new airline check-in areas will have an official opening the last week of October. Washington held a press conference Friday, October 22, 2021, to address long lines, crowded gates and security areas, and construction areas. He likened the situation to remodeling a house while its being lived in.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

In a wide-ranging press conference Friday, CEO Phil Washington asked for patience during the surge, saying the airport was struggling to meet demand due to capacity limits and labor shortages in almost every department.

“We intend to make things better,” Washington said. “But we have a lot of work to do.”

Washington, who took the CEO job three months ago, outlined several immediate changes to help meet projected demand during the upcoming holiday season. They include the reopening of parking lots, construction of four new TSA security lines and the addition of more information kiosks, with workers known as “purple shirts,” to help passengers navigate the terminal.

Airport staff will shoehorn the new TSA lines into the existing security infrastructure as soon as possible, Washington said. He did not offer a clear timeline for the project.

Starting this weekend, the Pikes Peak shuttle lot will open on a temporary basis. The space has been closed for months due to ongoing bus driver shortages.

To help with recruiting, Washington said he is looking at waiving commercial driver’s license requirements as a hiring condition. The solution would require drivers to use smaller vans to ferry passengers from the lots to the airport.

“I think it should be permanent,” he said. “Because this is going to be an ongoing issue as passenger volumes increase.”

Since opening in 1995, DIA has seen visitation skyrocket to roughly 70 million passengers each year.

Numbers plunged during 2020 due to the pandemic, but the airport projects volume to reach 80 million by 2025 and 100 million by 2035.

Many of its current challenges stem from the fact that the facility was built to serve roughly 50 million passengers each year, Washington said. Several long-term construction projects are in the works to expand capacity, but some have hit roadblocks in recent years.

“The holiday season will be tough,” Washington said. “But I see light at the end of the tunnel in terms of next year and after the holidays.”

Inside the terminal Friday, security lines snaked well into the baggage claim area. Passengers said they were surprised by how busy the airport was, but some noted premium options like TSA PreCheck helped them reach their flights in time.

Passengers throng the Great Hall at Denver International Airport as they wait to pass through the south security checkpoint on Friday, October 22, 2021.

Passengers throng the Great Hall at Denver International Airport as they wait to pass through the south security checkpoint on Friday, October 22, 2021.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Jim Overmeyer drove to the airport from Congress Park to pick up two friends coming into town for a concert. It took him 15 minutes just to find parking, he said.

Then he got lost in the terminal’s maze of construction walls.

“This is crazy,” he said. “But I understand they’re doing what they have to do to stay relevant.”

Next week, the airport will open the first phase of its Great Hall expansion after a series of delays. The extra space will open up the main terminal and allow for better foot traffic flow, Washington said.

He emphasized passengers should still plan to at least give themselves a 2-hour cushion when trying to make a flight in the coming months.

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