When Denver International Airport replaced Stapleton in the 1990s, it was designed to grow. Granted, at the time, it was hard to imagine an actual need for that since it was gigantic. But here we are in 2019 with three hometown airlines jockeying for position, and Denver is out of gates. As we speak, a whole slew of new gates are under construction, but the math is, shall we say, fuzzy. I decided to dive in and try to make sense of this.
This has turned out to be far more complex than I ever expected it to be, and I don’t know why. I’ve heard all sorts of numbers about which airlines have which gates today and what they want tomorrow, but they don’t match up. After multiple emails and a phone call with the airport, I now understand what’s happening.
Here is what Denver looks like today. (And here’s a map from the airport, but it’s not completely right.)
Up at the top are the C gates. Southwest technically has 24 of those, but it does use another gate (C51) for overflow, so we’ll call it 24ish. Spirit has 2, Alaska has 1, and 1 is common use. Easy.
Moving down to the B gates, things get confusing. This is solely used by United, and gate configurations have changed over the years. I’m told United has 66 gates under lease, but I count 71. After much back and forth with the airport, I’ve found out that three gates on the map — B19/35/75 — apparently don’t actually exist. (Denver says it’s uploading new maps.) But that still gives us 68 gates, and that, if I understand how this math thing works, is more than 66.
The problem children, I’ve learned, are B11 and 14 at the west end. Those don’t have holdrooms but were really just jet bridges hung on the end of the concourse. These gates were added a couple years ago specifically to provide relief for United when other gates are closed for construction during this process. That means United isn’t using more than 66 gates at any given time. And right now, it’s less than that anyway.
See where B forks on the right side? The top half of that has 11 gates (since B75 doesn’t exist) which are out of service for construction. In its place, United is using those 9 temporary gates in blue down on the A concourse. But that’s just temporary, and United will vacate those once construction is done.
Down at the bottom is the home for wayward airlines. Frontier has 9 gates, Delta has 6, American has 5, and then there’s a whole bunch of common use down there.
Got it? Good. Now let’s look at what’s happening:
There are five separate areas of construction going on here that are said to be adding 39 gates. That is a lie. They may be constructing 39 gates, but others go away during that process. Here’s what’s happening:
- 16 new gates are being built at the east end of C
- 4 new gates are being built at the west end of B
- 7 mainline gates replace the old 11 gate commuter concourse at the east end of B, there is also a loss of 1 commuter gate on the south finger
- 12 new gates are being built on the west end of A
- Those 9 temporary gates at the east end of A have an unclear future
That 39 gate number is if you add 16 + 4 + 7 + 12, but that conveniently leaves out the gates that disappear, so it’s a silly number. In reality, this is what happens:
- C gets 16 net new gates
- B loses 12 old commuter gates, gains 11 mainline gates, and B11/14 will get holdrooms so can be used – that’s a net gain of 1 gate
- A gain of 12 net new gates, and it’s entirely unclear what will happen with those 9 temporary gates at the east end
With that, it seems like we’re going to see a net increase of 29 gates pending what happens with those 9 temporary gates on A. I know those aren’t being included in any of those counts so far, so we’ll just set that aside.
Now that we have that straightened out (sort of), who wants those gates?
Southwest has always said it wants all 16 of the gates being built on C for itself. It wants to grow big in Denver. That’s rational, but United has other plans.
United has been working on pushing through a new lease agreement that would give it 24 gates above the 66 it has now. That includes the 1 new gate on B, all 12 of the new gates on A, and 11 of the existing gates. (It also has the option to trade 6 of its existing CRJ gates on the south finger for 5 gates capable of serving E-175s if it wants, but that’s a separate issue.) Those 11 gates as I understand it are currently split between Delta with 6 and Frontier with 5.
That is quite the bomb to drop here. In theory, United could take all those gates, and Southwest could take the 16 on C and then they’re both happy. But, uh, then Frontier would lose more than half its gates, and Delta would have none. That obviously won’t work… even if the airport says it will.
In the last Denver city council committee hearing before the lease goes to the full council for approval, Denver Airport’s chief Kim Day said this:
All of the carriers that are growing are going to get the number of gates that they wish. This is not precluding any of our carriers from growing in the way they’ve told us they want to grow in the next few years.
And to that I say… how? If United gets the 24 gates that appear to be speeding toward approval shortly and Southwest gets the 16 gates that it wants on C, then what do Delta and Frontier do? Maybe they can get room on the existing common-use gates. Or maybe those 9 ground-level temporary gates on A will be pressed into service in some form or another. As of now, the math doesn’t work, so something has to happen.
The official word on the street is that we should just wait and all will become clear. Neither the airport nor the airlines involved would say anything about this yet, but at least one airline said that there should be more concrete info in the next couple weeks. (For what it’s worth, it wasn’t Frontier. They didn’t respond at all.)
So we wait. Let’s see how they make this math work.