Denver International Airport has officially decided to expand the C concourse by at least eight gates, a $160 million project that will allow Southwest Airlines and other carriers to grow.
"Barring some extenuating circumstances, the plan is going forth with construction," said Cheryl Cohen-Vader, DIA's chief deputy director. The airport previously has "erred on the side of caution in terms of our expansion plans. We now have to move forward."
The entire scope of the project has not been determined but will include additional restrooms, shops and concessions. DIA officials initially were considering up to eight gates but say that's now the minimum number they plan to add.
The project is expected to take about three years to complete.
The eight gates will meet the "known demand of (airlines) that have shared their plans with us," Cohen-Vader said, declining to identify which carriers have expressed interest. "We're still looking at how many more, if any, we'll need. This is one of those times when you wish you had a crystal ball."
Some of the new gates likely are intended for Southwest, which has grown rapidly at DIA since starting service here in January. The Dallas-based carrier has boosted its daily flights in Denver this year to 32 from 13 and has indicated it plans further growth.
The concourse expansion is "in large part because of us," Gary Kelly, Southwest's chief executive officer, told the Rocky Mountain News last month. "They're trying to anticipate our growth. Under the assumption that we continue to add flights, we'll need more gates, and I hope that's what happens."
On Thursday, Southwest spokeswoman Marilee McInnis reiterated the company's desire to expand here, saying it is "very supportive of the project and working with the airport on the expansion." She added, however, that the gates aren't earmarked for Southwest.
The carrier currently occupies four of the concourse's 22 gates and has room to squeeze in several more daily flights. The city owns three other gates on the concourse that aren't used to full capacity. Other carriers operating there include Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines and American Airlines.
As part of the expansion, DIA will use two of the new gates for overflow traffic and for carriers with limited operations, such as charter airlines.
Airport officials have been considering the project for months, assessing demand and weighing the costs of such a move. Two weeks ago, DIA Manager Turner West said publicly that the airport was moving forward on the project, but he stopped short of calling it a done deal.
The expansion, expected to take about three years, needs approval from the Denver City Council. DIA plans to pay for the project's estimated $160 million price tag through a debt offering.
Peter Stettler of Fitch Ratings, which has an A-plus rating on DIA's bonds, said the cost is modest considering the airport's size.
"That type of activity probably fits into what we'd expect them to do going forward," Stettler said. "Obviously, they've had a nice upturn in enplanements, and they're getting to the point where they need to accommodate growth."
DIA is requesting proposals from companies interested in designing the expansion and it could select one within 45 days.
The move is part of DIA's efforts to plan for growth. The airport is in the process of updating its master plan, which outlines DIA's growth strategy until it reaches 50 million passengers annually. The airport, witnessing record passenger traffic, is nearing that number this year.
Aside from the Concourse C project, DIA is building a regional jet area for United on the B concourse. The airport also is considering building a commuter facility for Frontier Airlines on the A concourse. Airport officials, though, deem those discussions "very preliminary."
The expansion would involve extending the east end of the concourse by a couple of hundred yards.
At critical juncture, airport must balance growth, uncertainty
The project could cost an estimated $40 million to $50 million and likely would be similar in size to the United Express facility, which has 16 gates and is on the B concourse.
The project likely would be a "significant" expansion of the existing facility, which has nearly a dozen passenger-loading areas for airlines.