How United Airlines’ Denver hub got to 700 flights

Jan 31, 2020

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United Airlines has big plans for its hub at Denver International Airport, with more flights and the gates to support them coming during the next few years.

An updated lease between the Chicago-based carrier and Denver will give United 24 more gates for a total of 90 at the airport by 2022. The agreement was approved by the Denver City Council in Jan. 21, paving the way for the airline’s continued growth in the Mile High City.

But growth in Denver by United — or other airlines — was not always a foregone conclusion. For United, the journey has been up and down since it first established its hub in 1982 to committing to the new Denver International (DEN) that opened in 1995. Another series of cuts came after the 2008 credit crunch and recession, now followed by the current growth spurt.

“[I] can remember how contentious… it was to get to that initial commitment for this airport and to see the growth that United has had as a result,” said Denver Councilman Kevin Flynn at a committee hearing on Jan. 8. Flynn was a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News in the early 1990s when United was negotiating its first lease at Denver International.

“The mayor had a line in the sand that said ‘if we don’t have a commitment by this date you’re getting 20 gates and that’s it,’ and here we are today with 90,” said Flynn.

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Hub spree

United was already a significant player at Denver’s former Stapleton International Airport when it established its hub there in 1982. That year, according to Air Transport World (ATW) in November 1986, the Chicago-based carrier began a “major build up” in Denver that turned the city into a three-hub town with Continental Airlines, the first (and now-defunct) Frontier Airlines, and United.

Nonstop routes from United Airlines Denver hub in 1984. (Photo courtesy of Airline Maps)
Nonstop routes from United Airlines Denver hub in 1984. (Photo courtesy of Airline Maps)

 

Denver was at the epicenter of U.S. airlines’ larger shift towards hub-and-spoke networks. This occurred after the 1978 deregulation of the industry that allowed carriers to fly where they wanted, when they wanted. Airlines quickly learned that they could fly more places, more frequently if they concentrated operations in “hubs,” or airports where a large number of routes converge to create multiple connecting opportunities.

Maps covered with multi-stop routes quickly disappeared as a hub-building spree took place across the U.S. Many of the major connecting complexes travelers still use today were established then, including American’s Charlotte (CLT) and Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) hubs, and Delta Air Lines’ hubs in Detroit (DTW) and Salt Lake City (SLC).

Denver’s location at crossroads of most air routes across the U.S. made it “one of the country’s most important, and competitive, airline markets,” analysts told ATW in 1986. That boon was also Stapleton’s downfall, which by the late 1980s was known for congestion. Enter Denver International.

Related: United Airlines plans largest-ever Denver hub

MAR 10 1982, JUN 1 1982, JAN 20 1986, JAN 21 1986 United Airlines jets crowd around their concourse at Stapleton International Airport despite a loss of terminal slots from the air controllers strike. The airlie delayed plans to boost flights from its Chicago and Denver hubs. Credit: The Denver Post (Denver Post via Getty Images)
United Airlines jets at Denver Stapleton International Airport in 1986. (Denver Post via Getty Images)

 

New airport

Work on Denver International began, relatively quietly, in September 1989. The quiet kick off was, in part, due to the fact that the city lacked a commitment from either of its two hub carriers at the time — Continental and United (the first Frontier had shut down in 1986) — on how to pay for the facility, according to reports at the time by both the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News.

United and the city went back-and-forth over a lease at the new airport. While that went on, Continental swooped in and secured Concourse A — including construction of a bridge to the terminal —for its own hub. United ultimately committed to 42 gates on Concourse B in June 1991.

But by the time Denver International opened in February 1995, United was the city’s sole hub carrier. Continental had closed its Denver hub at the end of October 1994, and the second Frontier Airlines was still a nascent start up that served just a handful of routes at the time. Southwest Airlines, the airport’s second largest carrier today, briefly flew to Stapleton in the mid-1980s and would not return to Denver for another 11 years.

File photo of Denver International Airport This photo shows United jets between Concourse A and Concourse B, facing east. The Jepsen Termininal and the DIA office building show. (Photo By Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
United jets taxi at Denver International Airport in 2001. (Photo By Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

 

United’s footprint in Denver waxed and waned over the next 15 years. The airline expanded to Concourse A in 1999, only to return those gates to the city in 2007. In 2009, it even gave up several gates on Concourse B to Continental and US Airways amid an industry-wide downturn.

United and Continental merged in 2010, but it was not until 2014 when the airline began to grow again in Denver, Cirium schedules show. It took another five years, and a change in leadership at United, for Denver to come to the forefront of the carrier’s domestic network.

Since 2018, United has accelerated domestic growth with a focus on its mid-continent hubs in Chicago (ORD), Denver and Houston (IAH) — part of an effort to recapture what its executives call its “natural share” of the U.S. market.

That growth has seen the airline add more than a hundred daily flights from Denver and announce multiple new routes. This year, new routes will be added to Dodge City, Kansas (DDC), Nassau (NAS) in the Bahamas, and Santa Maria, California (SMX), among others.

“We have every intention to be the top carrier and growing in [Denver] airport to its full potential,”  Steve Jaquith, the head of United’s Denver hub, said at a Denver City Council committee hearing on Jan. 8. He, and other airline executives, emphasized that with the additional gates, United aims to expand its Denver hub to its largest-size ever with more than 700 departures on peak days in five years.

Related: United Airlines plans more gates, new clubs at growing Denver hub

 

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Timeline (number of United departures)

1982: United establishes Denver hub

1989: Construction of Denver International begins (184 departures, Denver Post)

1991: United commits to gates on Concourse B at Denver International (190 departures, Rocky Mountain News)

1994: Continental closes Denver hub (270 departures, Denver Post)

1995: Denver International opens (300 departures, Denver Post)

1999: United expands to Concourse A (314 departures, Denver Post)

2007: United exits Concourse A (450 departures, Cirium)

2009: United leases gates on Concourse B to Continental, US Airways (440 departures, Cirium)

2010: United and Continental merge (420 departures, Cirium)

2018: United accelerates Denver growth under mid-continent hub growth strategy (465 departures, Cirium)

2020: United seeks 24 additional gates in Concourses A and B at Denver International (about 550 departures, United)

Featured image by Denver International Airport.

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