Looking at US Airport Traffic, Denver Stands Out

DEN - Denver

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

DB1B data via Cirium

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

DB1B data via Cirium

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

DB1B data via Cirium

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.

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56 comments on “Looking at US Airport Traffic, Denver Stands Out

      1. @CF. Or could it be that Denver’s is exactly 223 mi. from the geographical center of the US. It’s has over 300 days of sunshine a yr. Has a multitude of things to do & places to play. That DEN has three hub airlines – no other airport in the US has that. More LCC & ULCC carrier (also more than any other US airport) choices to $ave $ for pax. As well as robust foreign flag airlines to cater & feed its high O&D traffic. Eg., Icelandair flies 11x wk. DEN’s PFC’s (Pax. facility charges) are also some of the lowest of all large city US airports. That every US airline flies thru DEN, & @ one time Denver had over 7 airlines w hub Ops. there. DEN’s strong OD traffic can also be tied to its quality of life, high paying jobs, particularly the aerospace industries. W/ ULA based there, as the second biggest aerospace company in the US. It has the largest bike & parks trail system in the country,, the fourth largest zoo by paid attendance, a multitude of outdoor recreation sports to enjoy – in all four seasons. Denver’s metro actually encompasses 8 metro wide counties, running in all directions, which makes its pop. closer to 3.5M. And it’s listed as Denver-Boulder-Aurora, in every study/report, I’ve read & seen. Yours is the first to leave that out. Denver, is also one the healthiest cities in the nation, & the thinnest. Due in fact to the daily dosing of vitamin C, via the 300 + days of sunshine a yr. Many doctors & health experts have stated that the NE & high central north cities residents, that c 9 mos. of gray, gloomy, rainy, snowy, cold high humidity, cloudy weather have higher depression obesity & much more health risks & overall general malaise & poor health because they don’t get out & exercise, get enough vitamin C & have higher rates of suicide & mortality.

        On a side timeline note. Cheyenne is only an hr. from Denver, not 1.5 hrs. And Cheyenne has zero large jet service, no Airbus A320 series or Boeing 737 series mainline aircraft. The same w/ Pueblo, CO. Both are served w RJ’s and small propeller aircraft.

        1. That is all fine and well but the sunshine in Denver has very little to do with people originating a flight there. It is as simple as what you finally started to get to – there is no other major airport within hundreds of miles(go north-northeast and you are talking 1,000 miles).

          The data didn’t seem to include metros smaller than a couple million, but I would guarantee SLC punches well above its weight as well. Same situation as Denver.

  1. I saw an argument recently that argued (oversimplifying it here) that in economic/transportation terms Wyoming is a subsidiary of Denver, and is more dependent on Denver than one might think. Not sure I agree with it to that extreme, but it makes some sense.

    With Denver, you have a metro area with a reputation for being somewhat hip and with lots of natural beauty in the area, and in recent years a LOT of young professionals with money have moved there. While Cranky’s analysis is focused on O&D, the “economic/transportation hub” effect likely still drives a lot of the Denver O&D traffic, as Denver **is** the economic center of the region, and is the biggest metro area for > 1 hour flight time around; even Vegas, Phoenix, and Dallas/Fort Worth are all 600+ miles away. I realize that the, “it’s big and getting bigger because it’s big” argument can get a bit old, but for that part of the country I’d argue it applies.

    1. Saw a YouTube video recently claiming that Denver’s population will decline through the rest of the 2020’s after rapidly expanding over the past few decades. Source “World according to brigs.”

      This channel is all about cities, metros & all manner of interesting stats. One recent video was on best states to live if one has a disability & a few were surprising, both in who was on the list as well as who wasn’t.

      1. As a Denver resident, the real issue is that the cost of living has priced a lot of long term residents out. Homelessness is spiking and the state doesn’t know how to fix it. We just had a mayor election where 17 candidates all said the same thing. The city simply grew too fast and services did not keep pace. People are going to move out as they just can’t afford it here. Also add in the rising risk of natural disasters with climate change.

        1. Sounds similar to what some parts of Florida are experiencing.

          When an area’s population changes (up or down) by double digit percentages in a decade, it’s a challenge.

        2. That’s r ridiculous as to your climate dysfunction quip. Climate dysfunction is GLOBAL. It completely screwed EWR (Newark Int’l Airport) a UA hub, & flights have been cancelled @ DEN today 6/29 as well as other UA hubs, even as we’ve (Denver) had 90 degree days & sunny the past two days. The Mother Nature disasters are EVERYWHERE. Witness the aforementioned EWR. Where are U going to move to? The moon maybe Mars?

          Homelessness is a problem nationwide. Have u ever lived in or visited LA, Chicago NYC, Seattle, Houston, KC, Minneapolis/ St. Paul, Miami or ANY American city for an extensive period? Columbus, the state capital of Ohio, has a lot of homelessness. The problem transcends nationwide, big city metros & smaller metros.

          Agree that affordable housing is a major problem, but the hot housing markets (nationwide)are starting to cool down. It’s hoped that mayor elect Mike Johnston can end homelessness, it’s a huge ask, but he’s very open & pushing for building affordable housing. There has also been some purchased hotels for homeless. Something outgoing mayor Hancock didn’t do NEARLY enough of.

  2. Interesting post as usual. Having had to fly into Wyoming for work multiple times, I can corroborate that the only viable option is Denver plus a long drive for most itineraries in the eastern half of the state.

    Unrelated, but I’m curious if you are including Melbourne (MLB) in your metro Orlando area stats? While it has fairly nominal service on DL and AA and a handful of weekly flights on Allegiant, Avelo, and Sun Country, the airport bills itself right on its webpage as “”Melbourne Orlando International Airport”. When I have flown in/out of there, every flight has had people exclaiming on how far they are from Orlando proper upon landing, but it is actually slightly closer to the cruise departure point at Port Canaveral than either MCO or SFB. Last MLB point of interest, TUI actually shifted their Orlando flying over to MLB somewhat recently, which presumably came with massive airport incentives, but it’s odd to see those 787s parked next to just a couple of CR7s…

    1. Sean – Nope, didn’t include MLB or Daytona. Those are so tiny that they would have been rounding errors and wouldn’t meaningfully change anything.

  3. The ski resorts drive a ton of traffic to Denver. Even for Vail, which has its own airport, it’s usually easier and cheaper to fly to Denver and drive or take a shared ride. Yes a lot of people live in the area, but just like the Orlando and South Florida areas, it’s the inbound tourist traffic that pushes Denver above its weight. I’ve flown into that airport countless times on my way skiing.

    1. If memory serves, Vail often sees weather/traffic related shutdowns from ATC in the winter as well, even when DEN is open.

      1. @Kilroy. Yes, because Vail is very close to the Continental Divide – the massive mtn. range that spilts the western half of NA. Running from the far north of Canada, south deep into Mexico. It’s where all the storms flow over, via the west to east flow of the jet stream. Vail is 2.5 hrs. from DEN. You must think Denver is right smack in the middle of the Rocky Mountains to think that Vail & Denver have snow cold & blizzards @ EXACTLY the same weather conditions daily?! Denver gets over 300 days of sunshine a yr., about 20 days less than LA. More than Miami Bch. & San Diego. That’s why the golf courses are open yr. round.u can literally play golf & ski the same day. It can be bright blue skies in Denver w a high of 45 in the winter, & snowing up in Vail.

  4. I would hypothesize that it’s the remoteness of Denver that contributes to this. How many major metros can you get to within an eight hour drive of Denver? Two – Albuquerque and Salt Lake City. Denver residents and visitors are almost forced to fly – more so than residents of other metros such as Charlotte which have a multitude of other metros within a day’s drive of them.

    1. That drive to Salt Lake City can easily take over 8 hours too… I-70 through the mountains can easily get shutdown due to weather and/or car accidents, and I-80 through Wyoming can have its own issues as well.

      1. @Denver res. That’s why DEN is the third busiest airport in the world. Most ppl. would rather fly than drive , particularly as DEN has LCC & ULCC airlines w low fares.

    2. That’s an interesting point. I wasn’t really surprised to see San Diego was a bit under the line. Residents can usually drive to LAX for international flights. The area itself gets a lot of tourists from California, Arizona, and Nevada, but quite a lot of them drive.

    3. A multitude of small metros from Charlotte.
      Also like Cheyenne w zero mainline Airbus or Boeing jet service, w most of your day drives from Charlotte having only propeller air Srvc. The exceptions being Nashville & Atlanta. Just as SLC & Albuquerque, & u could add Colorado Springs & Cheyenne as one hr drives from DEN. It’s not the remoteness of Denver, quite the opposite. It’s DEN’s proximity, exactly 223 mi. from the geographical center of the US. Which is y it’s the third busiest airport in the world behind ATL & DFW. Every airline flies thru DEN. And DEN is the only airport in the US that has three airlines w hubs there. It’s UA largest hub, & SWA largest hub.

  5. Think this also highlights that it’s hard to drive (or take alternative transportation) to Denver. The share of transportation between major markets in the NE corridor is surely lower for air compared to the rest of the country to those markets. Denver isn’t losing passengers to/from BOS/NYC/PHL/WAS to car and train.

    1. Very true.

      The problem with routing a plane over or through Denver is… what do you do when “everything is socked in from Salt Lake to Lincoln?”

      1. That’s when you get CAT IIIC landings for everyone! :-)

        (with even more sweating than in the movie 8-) )

  6. A lot of focus is on the skiing for good reason, but during the summer time many of these front range mountain communities have events, festivals, runs, bike rides and other activities driving a “four seasons” economy that can rival winter traffic. Especially for people who find the house of mouse pedestrian the Rockies are literally Disneyland. This has grown significantly in the last 10 years and a lot of communities are starting to push back due to event fatigue. Yet people are still coming.

    But as Kenneth said, remoteness is a big factor as well. A lot of western communities like Boise, Tri-Cities, Bend, Bozeman…punch well above their weight with robust air service compared to eastern towns of similar size – just because you spend day(s) getting anywhere if you drive. Denver is that, plus a huge population in what is effectively the “middle of nowhere”.

    1. @Altamont flyer. Denver isn’t in the “middle of nowhere.” It’s exactly 223 mi. from the geographic center of the US, & the biggest metro, w a pop. of almost 3.3M, it why DEN is UA largest hub & getting bigger, UA will be up to over 750 flights a day in the nxt. couple of yrs. Same w SWA, DEN is their largest hub w over 300 flights a day & growing. DEN is the ONLY airport in the US w three hub airlines – & it’s precisely one of the main reasons that DEN has such robust air srvc. And y it’s the third busiest airport in the world, behind ATL & DFW. Those cities u mentioned, Bend, Boise Bozeman & the Tri Coties don’t have robust non stop air service to the east coast. Those cities flights all go thru UA hubs like DEN, SFO or LAX, SLC hub Delta & American hub PHX. Same w any SWA flights that serve those cities u listed (of which is only one or two maybe) SWA isn’t going ns. They’re routing thru DEN, b4 heading East.

      The outdoor retailers aren’t tiring of the tourists & locals either. U think they’re not working during the spring summer & fall mos.? As said in an earlier post Colorado & Denver has a full four seasons of sports & recreational sports. And 300 + days of sunshine (more than Miami & San Diego) always helps the recreational, concerts, sports events economies.

  7. Another factor is that Denver is pretty far from its neighboring large cities. Everything but Albuquerque is an 8+ hour drive so flying makes more sense than other cities, especially with three airlines competing.

    1. This is so true compared to much of the eastern half of the country. From DC, in 8 hours I could easily drive to the following major airports: CLT, RDU, GSO, RIC, ORF, PHL, EWR, LGA, JFK, PVD, BOS, PIT, CLE, CVG, CMH, DTW.

      1. It’s been said many times, but it bears repeating: Even by air miles (great circle path), not driving miles, Detroit is closer to Washington, DC than it is to some parts of Michigan… http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?P=dtw-dca,+dtw-iwd

        From a logistics standpoint, there’s a reason that you see a TON of warehouses in Eastern PA; PA has cheaper labor & real estate (and is less unionized) than many neighboring states. It depends on the exact locations and if the driver can time rush hour traffic well, but a warehouse in NE Pennsylvania allows a truck driver to deliver to an area covering from most of southern New England through DC/Northern Virginia and return the same day while still staying legal when it comes to the hours of service rules for truckers.

        1. Basically anything along I-81 in Virginia, Maryland or PA. Tons in Hagerstown, MD now. Easy to understand. Cheap land, lower wages and 2 hours in from the coast from mid Virginia through PA.

          1. Makes sense. I-81 has long been a favored routed for truckers on the East Coast; usually much less traffic than I-95.

            In the Midwest there are a number of warehouses in SE Wisconsin between the IL border and Milwaukee.

          1. My West Coast version of that is that is to mention that San Diego is further east than Spokane.

            Also, if you head due south from the city of Detroit, you wind up in Canada.

          2. Other fun ones:
            When you’re going from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, which direction are you driving? (South)

            What is the largest US city by population east of Reno, NV and west of the Mississippi? (Los Angeles, CA)

          3. And DTW isn’t in the mid west. Neither is CLE, ORD, CVG or IND. those airports are all in the high north. It’s ridiculous to say “Midwest.”

  8. As someone who spent five years in the DEN area and regularly go back there (actually flying up there Wednesday), as others have said the remoteness is a factor, as is a massive catchment area where you might as well just drive to DEN and fly nonstop rather than taking a connecting flight from your smaller airport. The closest airport with significant air service is ABQ, at ~6 hours away. Pretty sure DEN is also rather efficient in terms of miles travelled vs. flight time, which biases folks further toward flying out of there vs. somewhere else, even if they have to spend another 15-30 minutes navigating the airport vs. alternatives (which you’d lose right back due to connecting when DEN can usually get you a nonstop).

    Significant competition, and the resulting large number of destinations and low fares, helps too. Which of course is bolstered by UA/WN connecting traffic ensuring that even more flights are viable. The fact that AUS-DEN is up to ~12.7x daily (5x UA…all mainline now, 7x WN, 4-5x/wk F9) at fares that are pretty respectable for a 2-hour high-traffic flight is downright impressive.

    Finally, as others have said, the massive amount of stuff to do in Denver revolving around the outdoors makes it a solid leisure destination year-round, and the aforementioned destination list and competition means that *inbound* travelers tend to take ground transportation from DEN rather than flying into somewhere closer to their destination. *Plenty* of those AUS-DEN passengers are hopping on the plane for that reason.

    1. @ Ian L. Well said!! Excellent rebut. And DEN is UA & WN’s largest hub. W UA ramping up to over 750 flights a day, & WN has over 300 flights a day. DEN also has some of the lowest PFC’s charges of ANY large airport. Its foreign flag carriers also have high traffic. Icelandair has 11x a wk. out of DEN. And w a good choice of LCC & ULCC’s (which most airports have zero) cheap fares are an easy get. And lastly, being in the center of the US, most flight times avg. less than 2.5 hrs.

  9. Is this a big change from where DEN was positioned in 2019? DEN outperformance can be explained by several factors mentioned–remoteness and being a popular destination. Did DEN benefit in 2022 from being a domestic leisure destination while international demand was dampened by COVID?

  10. It might be interesting to look at these numbers after the third quarter, which includes most of the summer travel season.

  11. Another fascinating deep dive analysis which makes this site such a pleasure to read.

    DEN has unique characteristics which many people have noted but the most significant is that 3 carriers are trying to grab a piece of a growing market. THAT makes the market very competitive. When you add in that WN and UA are both trying to increase connecting flow through DEN to help boost their share of the local market, then it is not a surprise at all that the number of local passengers is higher than one would expect for a market the size of DEN.

    The only real numbers that would help equalize the traffic numbers vs. other metro areas is revenue numbers including on a per passenger basis. I suspect, but do not have data to prove it, that the average fare per passenger is falling faster or not growing as much as in other parts of the country.

    Finally, let’s also keep in mind that DEN is the only global carrier (big 3) hub where the legacy carrier has not consistently been the largest carrier in local market O&D passengers. Southwest overtook United in that metric and UA has been quick to highlight that they have regained the leadership position. UA and WN both have strong designs on DEN but UA has a compelling reason to go even more “all-in” and that might come at the cost of overstimulating the local market.

  12. Nicely compiled, Cranky; thanks.

    I hadn’t appreciated where Chicago sits size-wise. I always think as NY-LA-Chicago as the big three cities int he US, but Chicago is basically the same size as the Bay Area and DC. So it’s really NY 1, LA 2, and Chicago/SF/DC 3abc. (That said off of your plot, I look at Wikipedia and find Chicago is 9.4M, DC/Baltimore 6.4M, and the Bay Area 4.6M, so why are they so close on your plot?)

    I would think that a larger fraction of travel would be by air in a city like Denver where both there’s a large (if very low density) catchment (as you say) and air travel is really the only way to get anywhere. NY and other northeastern cities have trains and driving take a much more significant portion of domestic trips than Denver. Even for Phoenix, driving to LA isn’t crazy; Albuquerque is the largest major metro area that is less than seven hours driving from Denver.

    1. Strike that question: I was looking at MSAs, not CSAs (despite your explicit and clear explanation!).

  13. Don’t forget Western Nebraska and far enough west Kansas are also in Denver’s catchment area. I knew a guy who lived in Colby, Kansas who would use Denver if he had to fly somewhere and I knew a now deceased preacher in Sidney, Nebraska who would fly guest speakers into Denver and think nothing of making the round trip to DEN to pick that speaker up.

    On the Interstate 80 corridor North Platte, Nebraska is roughly equidistant between DEN and OMA. On the Interstate 70 corridor WaKeeney, Kansas is roughly equidistant between DEN and MCI.

  14. As a life long Denver resident, it is not the ski traffic that drives Denver demand. The airport peaks over the summer, not the winter. The reason that DEN punches so high is that we have to fly to get anywhere. DC/NYC/Boston all have other options like driving, trains, etc. From Denver, we pretty much have to fly to get anywhere. Denver is incredibly isolated geographically. DEN also has no competition from other airports. It has a huge geographical catchment area with no other decent sized airports in it. Denver is also far more prosperous than it used to be.

  15. South Florida O&D is all about cruises. Miami used to be the largest cruise port in the world (4 million passengers per year) and Ft Lauderdale was pretty close to that. (Port Canaveral has surpassed Miami … but those flights are via Orlando). No, it’s not as big as the Mouse … but it’s enough to impact all the flights. Toward the end of the pandemic people have been returning to cruising – to the point that ships are occasionally oversold like flights are.

  16. Frontier has a “hub” in Denver? How many gates do they have there, a half dozen maybe? I just checked Flight Aware and out of 40 flights that I could find Frontier had one flight on the way to Denver and none on the way out. Seems to me they abandoned the hub and spoke system long ago in favor of a helter-skelter of planes flying from wherever to wherever ala Spirit.

    1. Patrick – It’s not a traditional hub in the sense that they purposefully schedule connecting banks, but they still operate 60-70 flights per day from I think 14 gates? Can’t remember the number exactly.

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