DIA Is a COVID-19 Safety Joke

Photo by Michael Roberts
My train ride back to the terminal on the evening of May 11.
Last night, I was in the most crowded setting I've experienced since before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: a train car at Denver International Airport.

My wife and I were among the first to enter the compartment, owing to her broken left leg. A few weeks back, she took a misstep off our back porch and fractured her tibia and fibula — a condition addressed by a cast up to her knee. As a result, she was being transported through DIA in a wheelchair pushed by a staff member; I offered to do the job but was told I couldn't for liability reasons. Once we were inside, scads of people poured into the car, and even more joined us at the next stop en route to the terminal and baggage claim. Before long, every person was in close contact with at least one other returning passenger, and frequently two, three or four. My wife was even bashed by a bag carried by an apologetic fellow after he was shoved in her direction.

Right around that time, the voice of Mayor Michael Hancock welcomed us to town and advised us to wear facial coverings and maintain physical distancing wherever possible. It was all I could do to keep myself from laughing out loud.

This scenario didn't come as a surprise — although I was hoping that some progress had been made over the past two and a half months.

In late February, in "DIA Passengers Describe Safety Horror Show," my daughter, Ellie, and our future son-in-law, Nick Nist, shared what they'd seen at the Denver airport compared to the COVID protocols in place at Dulles International Airport in the Washington, D.C., area, where they currently live.

Cut to May 7, when I joined my wife and Ellie's twin sister, Lora, on a drive to DIA; we were scheduled to fly into Dulles and begin an extended visit to the nation's capital. It would be my first flight on a plane since 2019 — and shortly after our arrival, the scenario that Ellie and Nick had painted earlier this year came to life before my eyes.

click to enlarge Southwest customers lined up to board a jam-packed flight at DIA as compared to wide open walkways at Dulles. - PHOTOS BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
Southwest customers lined up to board a jam-packed flight at DIA as compared to wide open walkways at Dulles.
Photos by Michael Roberts
Owing to the seemingly endless construction at the airport, many parts of the terminal offered less space for passengers than usual, resulting in corridors and walkways so crowded that maintaining a distance between ourselves and others ranged from difficult to impossible. Granted, most people tried to be conscientious, but there was only so much that good manners could do. Moreover, mask usage was spotty. As I walked through the airport, I saw only one person (a dude, naturally) who was completely unmasked, but a sizable percentage wore their facial coverings incorrectly, displaying their nose, their mouth or both.

We were flying Southwest, which requires people to line up within inches of each other by their boarding order prior to stepping onto the aircraft. But there wasn't much difference between the queue at our gate and the lines we'd already been through.

The flight itself was totally packed; the days of open middle seats are long gone. But while every row was full, the (hilarious) flight crew made sure that all the passengers were masked and no one used a bag of snack mix as an excuse to turn their facial covering into a chin strap for an extended period of time.

In contrast, Dulles was a completely different world: wide open and clean, with great mask usage. In other words, everything DIA wasn't.

The scenario was much the same when we returned to Dulles for our flight home. The D.C. airport had oodles of space, while DIA was again a mess when we finally landed after a marathon four-hour flight slowed by weather.

As my wife was being wheeled toward the train, she made small talk with the airport employee assigned to help her. When she asked how long construction was expected to last, he replied, "Three or four more years. But they're working hard." Then he loaded us into a small elevator that eventually held seven people: the three of us, plus a second DIA employee pushing another passenger in a wheelchair, and two additional companions.

The decision of the second group not to wait for the next elevator seemed irresponsible — at least until we were loaded onto the train, where the crush was far worse.

Welcome to Denver.