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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Flying through Denver

For a billion dollars, will it get any easier?

Flying through Denver

(George Rose/Getty Images)

Almost 20 years ago, when Denver International Airport was still brand new and I may have been a little too brash, I detailed in this space some of the airport’s most noticeable problems. A few Denver residents have never quite forgiven me.

Now I read that our friends in the Mile High City are getting ready to spend over a billion dollars updating and expanding the fifth-busiest airport in the United States. Yes, I said a billion dollars. For that kind of money, maybe I can sneak in a few kind words.

For example, Denver’s main terminal building really is a stunning piece of architecture. Whether in your mind’s eye it reflects the magnificent Rocky Mountain peaks just a few miles to the west, or perhaps a band of nomads and camels wandering across North Africa’s deserts, high adventure obviously starts here.

But so much for looks. If the place doesn’t work, who cares about appearances? Get me there fast, the weary traveler says, and get me there comfortably. Denver’s airport has a second chance now to get a few things right. Seems to me, for a billion dollars, they should get some things very right indeed.

The existing Denver airport enjoyed one great advantage when it was built in the early 1990s. It was designed, all fresh and new, from the ground up. Airports like LaGuardia in New York, Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, and LAX in Los Angeles were redo efforts of older models. Denver, though, had this great chance to get everything right.

But—Denver didn’t. Remember how its opening was delayed for more than a year while the automated baggage system manhandled and chewed up hundreds of suitcases? That was just a symbol of a sad list of user-hostile problems.

I hear it everywhere: Travel by air used to be fun. It used to be an adventure. These days, it is neither.

What always frustrates me most about Denver’s airport is the sense that you are never quite where you want to be. Start with the fact that the airport is 26 miles from downtown Denver—26 miles of typically bumper-to-bumper freeways. And then, as I said in my column in 1996, “Give the designers credit for consistency—everywhere you want to go, you have to walk, ride, or climb in exactly the opposite direction to get there. While your instincts draw you one direction—toward the departure gate—the driveways, doorways, and escalators move you away from your target. Your heart pounds and your insides seethe.”

The result in the airport’s earliest years was that thousands of passengers missed their flights, just because either they or their luggage couldn’t get through the terminal in timely fashion.

The existing Denver airport was designed to handle 50 million travelers a year. Instead, it’s now handling 60 million—but not very comfortably. For a billion dollars plus, planners say they’ll increase capacity to 80 million travelers a year.

But we haven’t done very well in our times living up to our predictions—especially about travel. I hear it everywhere: Travel by air used to be fun. It used to be an adventure. These days, it is neither.

Hurrying down the B Concourse at New York’s LaGuardia Airport just a couple of weeks ago, and dodging the wall-to-wall crowds, I couldn’t help stretching my mind around this glum comparison: Just think how much better we’ve been at learning to speed information around the globe (so much faster and cheaper) than at moving people across the same expanses (so much slower and more expensive).

Wouldn’t it be something if during the next generation we applied the same genius to mass transit that we’ve applied in this generation to the digital reshaping of our lives? And wouldn’t it be something too if we encouraged Uncle Sam to keep his wildly wasteful hands off such projects and let a few enterprising young minds take their turn, just as they’ve done with the internet?

And wouldn’t it be something if, 20 years from now, and maybe less than a billion dollars later, wisely invested in Denver, we might visit the airport there—and report to you and others what a speedy and efficient delight we found the whole experience to be? Check back with us, please, in 2038.