Navigating Denvers airport as summer traffic nears normal levels

If that summer trip you’ve planned out of state is your first one in a while, traveling through Denver International Airport will bring challenges both familiar and new.

First off, you’re not alone in taking to the skies: DIA’s traffic is recovering quickly from pandemic lows. Its security checkpoints were just 12% less busy last week, before and during the Fourth of July holiday weekend, than they were during the same period in 2019. That actually made for the airport’s busiest week since the pandemic set in early last year.

Air traffic out of Denver — a major domestic connecting hub — continues to recover faster than the national average, driven by robust leisure travel. The result is longer security screening lines and more crowded corridors and concourse trains, all while major construction projects are still underway and some pandemic restrictions remain in effect.

On Wednesday afternoon, soon-to-retire airport CEO Kim Day marked the start of the second phase of the three-year-old terminal renovation project during a kickoff event. The new phase will relocate one of the two main security screening areas (more on that below).

“It feels normal out here,” Day said. “So people should just plan for wearing their masks and being a little more patient than normal. Obviously, construction walls (in the terminal) still make it a little hard to get around the middle, but … they’ve only got a few more months to be patient with us. By the holidays, all those walls will be down.”

Here’s a look at what you need to know if you’re heading to DIA in coming months.

Pandemic restrictions and closures

Mask rules are getting laxer in Colorado, but not inside airports or onboard airplanes. Federal rules still require the wearing of masks by all travelers through Sept. 13. Compliance varies in the airport, but strict enforcement on planes and at security screening has resulted in a surge of tension and conflicts when travelers resist.

During the pandemic, DIA closed several parking lots while traffic was down. Its economy lots next to the terminal garages are now fully reopened, but its long-term shuttle lots remain closed. The Pikes Peak Lot is expected to reopen Sept. 1, a spokeswoman said. In the meantime, several private off-airport lots still provide cheaper options.

Delays and longer waits possible

Give yourself plenty of time to get through the airport. The Transportation Security Administration has said it’s understaffed, at times slowing security screening. But it’s brought dozens of agents to Denver as reinforcements lately and will ramp up more for the upcoming All-Star Game.

Airlines are struggling to keep up with the surge in demand for travel, too. In recent weeks, some carriers have blamed staffing issues and pilot shortages for flight delays and reduced schedules. When your flight takes off, it’s likely to be full — especially if you’re heading to a popular getaway destination.

Construction walls still block paths

During the pandemic, DIA’s once-troubled Great Hall terminal renovation project has made a lot of progress. But the rebooted $770 million project still comes with plentiful construction walls bringing detours around the central portions of the terminal, on both the ticketing and baggage-claim levels.

The downstairs walls have shifted recently, meaning that passengers exiting the concourse train now walk north to find their baggage claim, instead of south. The second phase of the project, which by early 2024 will build a new security screening area in the northwest corner of the upstairs level to replace the current south checkpoint, soon will bring new walls restricting access in that area.

On the lower level, up to four screening lanes in the north security checkpoint will be closed beginning in August, the airport says, to accommodate an extension of the upstairs floor plate above into the atrium, which will accommodate the new screening area.

The walls will make space tight, but DIA says it will have enough screening capacity during construction.

When will that project be finished?

The airport’s schedule calls for the renovation to be done sometime in 2024 — still a long ways off. But the most cumbersome construction walls should come down by late this year, when new check-in and bag-drop areas for United, Southwest and Frontier airlines open upstairs.

That will allow travelers to walk more easily from the north end of the terminal to the south end without a detour, on both levels — except in certain areas near continuing construction.

Separate expansion projects underway on each of the three concourses are adding new gates and renovating some existing areas. But most of that work is occurring on the buildings’ ends, out of travelers’ way.

The end-goal for security

One of the original motivations behind the terminal revamp was to make security screening more efficient and less vulnerable to threats from the walkways and balconies above. The early project problems resulted in a scale-back of this plan, however, with just one of the two terminal checkpoints now set to be relocated.

The new upstairs screening area that will be constructed in the second phase will operate differently from the current large checkpoints, airport officials say. Passengers will be directed through a new, more efficient multi-line setup that won’t have them waiting in a single snaking line with hundreds of fellow travelers.

DIA has been studying options to revive the shelved portion of the Great Hall Project that would relocate the existing north screening area to the northeast corner of the upper level, under a similar setup that would take all screening off the lower level. That decision, including nailing down the cost, likely will be made in coming months. Reviving it is a goal shared by Phil Washington, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s nominee to be the new CEO of DIA. He also has said he wants to speed up the current construction.

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