Photo credit: American Airlines planes parked at Terminals A and C at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. DFW International Airport
Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver are two of the biggest hub airports in the U.S. In fact, last year, they were the second and third busiest, respectively, after Atlanta.
That makes the fact that both expect double-digit passenger traffic growth this year all the more remarkable. It’s one thing for a small- or medium-sized airport, like booming Austin, to post such gains as the absolute number of additional fliers is far lower. But for big hubs to grow at that rate means millions more travelers must pass through their gates than the year before.
But that’s exactly what’s happening in Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) and Denver. The former, American Airlines’ largest hub, expects to top 80 million passengers this year — a more than 10% year-over-year increase — DFW CEO Sean Donohue said. DFW came in just shy of its pre-pandemic traffic peak last year when it saw just over 72 million fliers.
Denver, which boasts Frontier Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines’ hubs or bases, expects 78-79 million passengers this year, or as much as a 14% year-over-year increase, airport data show. The airport surpassed its pre-pandemic peak last year when it handled more than 69 million passengers.
What’s behind that growth? Both are the focus of various airline strategies, American has doubled down on DFW amid robust travel demand in the Sunbelt and the connectivity it offers there. While not yet at its peak of 900 daily departures, the Fort Worth-based carrier is over 830 departures on peak days this summer, according to Cirium Diio schedules. More importantly: the average number of seats per departure this summer is 13% higher than in 2019, or 143 seats per flight.
“We’re going to hit 80 million customers this year. We’re really confident in that,” Donohue said. He added that the airport continues to see growth, particularly among international airlines, through the rest of the decade.
In Denver, where 39 new gates were recently completed, Southwest and United plan big expansions with those additional facilities. The former invested in the airport through the pandemic with new routes to places like Bozeman, Mont., Eugene, Ore., and Steamboat Springs, Colo. And the latter, while it has taken longer to rebuild schedules from the pandemic, recently announced several new routes and a new early morning flight bank targeting local travelers.
Those new gates, the first major concourse expansion the airport has undertaken since it opened in 1995, “enabled our carriers to expand and increase their services,” Denver Airport Chief Operating Officer Steve Jaquith said. “Thirty-nine new gates is the equivalent of a medium-sized airport built within the framework of Denver International Airport. The demand is definitely there to fill that.”
The passenger growth in DFW and Denver exceeds national forecasts. Screening numbers from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) show passenger numbers holding at roughly 2019 levels, or a little above. And trade group Airlines for America only forecast a roughly 1% increase in passenger traffic this summer compared to four years ago.
That makes the jumps in DFW and Denver all the more notable. Other big hubs, like Chicago O’Hare, anticipate slower passenger growth more in line with historic low-single-digit trends.
One thing that does not look like it will change this year: DFW and Denver’s respective spots on the Airport Council International-North America’s annual ranking of busiest airports. DFW’s forecast is slightly above Denver’s and, as Cirium Diio schedules show, there are simply more seats scheduled at the former through it this year than at the latter. But of course anything is possible for what is ultimately about bragging rights.
“It feels good to be number two, but we don’t get there by beating other airports,” Donohue said. “We get there by running a really great airport.”
Atlanta, long the busiest airport in the U.S. and world, anticipates passenger numbers to near 100 million this year.
All the passenger growth means expansion is top of mind for executives at both DFW and Denver. DFW is in the midst of a $4.9 billion capital plan that includes rebuilding Terminal C, which dates to when it opened in the 1970s, and adding piers to terminals A and C that will add a net nine new gates in the coming years. A new 15-gate Terminal F is scheduled to open in 2026. American will use the new gates in terminals A and C, and is expected to use most of the new F terminal.
Denver is focused on a major renovation of the “Great Hall” in its main terminal building. The delayed and over-budget project that includes new and expanded check-in areas and security checkpoints is scheduled to open in phases through around 2028. Denver will also introduce new carriages on its terminal-concourse train beginning later this year, and open 14 new gates on the eastern end of Concourse A for Frontier next year.
Both Donohue of DFW and Jaquith of Denver emphasized the need for high quality facilities and services for travelers. Both have been issues at airports across the country as traffic rebounded faster than expected straining facilities, and staffing shortages and supply chain backups delayed the reopening of many concessions. Those issues have eased this summer but, as a recent connection through Denver showed, the airport is still in the process of building out concessions in many of its newly opened gate areas.
“We always want to strive to be the best,” Jaquith said. “We’re focused on delivering great quality experience for customers.”
Updated to note Denver’s Great Hall project is not scheduled for completion until around 2028, not 2025 or 2026 as previously stated.