I hadn’t spent nearly enough time picking apart full year 2022 traffic trends even though the last quarter of 2022 came out in Cirium data a couple months. Now that I’m getting to it, I’m finding some interesting nuggets. One in particular is the rise of Denver. I still can’t fully explain it, but I can certainly see why Southwest and United are eagerly fighting over the city. It is punching well above its weight.
Let’s start with a look at the daily passengers each way (PDEW) for US domestic flying for the full year of 2022. Keep in mind these travelers are O&D travelers — those starting or ending their trips at these airports and not connecting through them.
2022 Domestic O&D PDEW by Airport
It’s the usual suspects at the top. The Mouse rules all with Orlando squeaking by with the top spot. Los Angeles is just behind and then there’s Las Vegas. But in fourth place? That’s Denver. Yes, Denver beats out the likes of Atlanta and Chicago which seems surprisingly high.
Want an even more unexpected stat? If you look at Q3 2022 alone and just focus on travel within the lower 48 states, Denver had more O&D passengers than any other airport in the US. (If you include Hawai’i, Los Angeles sneaks into first place.)
Denver is a big place, but it isn’t big enough to be this high on the list based on size alone. It seems strange. But there is one obvious point to make. Denver is the only airport in that city while other cities have multiples. So, let’s realign this based on metro areas.
2022 Domestic O&D PDEW by Metro Area
This looks more like what you might expect to see, right? New York and its three giant airports (along with smaller ones) combine to be the largest metro area. LA is next followed by South Florida, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area. In fact, Denver (which I combined with Colorado Springs) is all the way down in the ninth spot, just behind Vegas and ahead of Dallas. That’s still a lofty perch for the 17th largest Combined Statistical Area (CSA), but it’s more reasonable.
The population, however, is really important to put this in context. So let’s dive in further on that, because Denver once again stands out.
I decided to do a scatter plot where I have the PDEWs on the vertical axis and the metro area population on the horizontal. I used population counts of Combined Statistical Areas (CSAs) where available and Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) in places like San Diego where there is no CSA. Here’s what it looks like.
2022 Domestic O&D PDEW and Population by Metro Area
There’s a lot going on here, but let me try and make this easy. The dots that fall below the trend line have higher levels of population but fewer PDEWs. Those above the line have less population but higher PDEWs.
You would absolutely expect to see Las Vegas and Orlando punching above their weight, as you see in this chart. These are big destinations where the local population only accounts for around a quarter of all O&D traffic. The rest are tourists/conference attendees/etc coming into town. In most other cities, it’s closer to 50/50.
South Florida is also an outlier here, but that’s a different story. It has the three airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach that add up to this big number. It is a big local market, but it’s also a big destination. I’m guessing it is somewhat juiced in 2022 as you had a lot of airlines that flooded Miami during the pandemic trying to figure out what they want to do there. Florida was the endless fountain of demand while other places were still lying low. We’ll see if this evens out to some extent over time.
But after those three, the remaining outlier is Denver. I included Colorado Springs in the Denver numbers which actually dampened the results to some extent. Denver alone would have shifted to the left while barely losing any PDEW, keeping it near Las Vegas.
So what gives? Why is Denver such a huge market? It certainly helps to have three airlines battling for supremacy. Frontier, Southwest, and United have all made recent moves. United in particular has focused on the local traveler in Denver lately. Southwest generally does that anyway.
Though I don’t have exact data, I think it’s safe to make some assumptions about other traffic patterns. Some of this has to be a result of Denver being a gateway for places much further afield. Hordes of travelers flock to the Rockies to go skiing. While there are airports scattered around the mountains, it’s usually a lot cheaper and simpler to fly into Denver and then take a bus or drive. People don’t seem to blink at driving 3 or 4 hours to get to their mountain destination.
At the same time, you have smaller communites around the Mountain West that have limited and expensive air service. Those people drive as well. Cheyenne is an hour and a half. Pueblo is two hours. Even Casper at 4 hours isn’t too much of a stretch for people so they can get more affordable airfare and a much better schedule.
Those types of driving distances don’t really exist in the same way outside of the expansive west, and Denver is such a central location to serve a very broad region. These aren’t all enormous cities, but the numbers add up and help Denver to maintain air service that’s well above what you might otherwise expect to see.