On the Fly: Michael Hancock Should Have Followed Head Earlier at Airport

Some pandemic-free day, you may be going through this new ticketing area on level 6 of Denver International Airport.EXPAND
Some pandemic-free day, you may be going through this new ticketing area on level 6 of Denver International Airport.
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Yes, Mayor Michael Hancock made a big mistake flying out of Denver on Thanksgiving Eve, after he told staffers and Denver residents to stay home.

But there have been much bigger mistakes committed at Denver International Airport, and the most recent happened on Hancock’s watch. The disastrous Great Hall Project deal never should have been approved, and that debacle can’t be blamed on following your “heart and not your head.”

More like following an eagerness to empty wallets.

In August 2017, Denver signed a 34-year deal with Ferrovial Airports to head Great Hall Partners, an alliance that would lead the way on a $1.8 billion project to remodel the Jeppeson Terminal at Denver International Airport into what looked a lot like a giant private mall (and, incidentally, airport) that would capture the shopping dollars of a captive audience of travelers trapped behind security. On its website, Ferrovial, a Spanish-based multinational company, touted the $650 million deal as its debut in the U.S. airport market, “opening new opportunities in the area of public-private partnerships.”

No kidding: Prior to the DIA deal, most of the attention Ferrovial had gotten in this country was over its operation of two offshore refugee camps for the government of Australia that were denounced by Amnesty International as “islands of despair.”

And there was plenty of despair before Denver cut the ties with Great Hall Partners, as pieces of that crumbling partnership scrambled to get off the island — built on substandard concrete, Ferrovial said, in just one of its many excuses for falling behind on the job.

In August 2019, the city finally told Great Hall Partners that it was terminating the 34-year contract...32 years early. Ultimately, Denver wound up paying Ferrovial $245 million to get out of the deal — $105.6 million for design and construction work already completed, and another $139.7 to simply get rid of the company for good.

“We got in partnership with the wrong people,” Hancock admitted this fall. “It became very apparent to me these guys were trying to game the city. We got disentangled.”

At a cost of lots of money, time and no small amount of credibility. The deal had looked too good to be true, and it was. If Hancock had followed his head and looked carefully at what his airport appointees were considering — for 34 years! — he might have recognized that. If he’d followed his heart, he might have realized that the iconic Great Hall deserved better. But he was too eager for the grandiose plan to take off. And even as his competitors in the 2019 mayoral race warned of turbulence and trouble ahead at the airport, Hancock hung on. It was enough to make you reach for the barf bag.

On December 7, Denver City Council is slated to consider the amended contracts and plans with new partners for Phase 2 of the post-Ferrovial Great Hall Project, which passed through committee last week. “Although the Great Hall Project has encountered some early challenges,” airport CEO Kim Day said in the understatement of the decade in a status statement, “the project is back on track, and we have made significant progress over the last year on Phase 1.”

The revised Phase 1 calls for the construction of new ticketing areas in the middle of level 6 for United and Southwest Airlines; that job should be completed by the end of next year. In the meantime, Phase 2 will get under way. It focuses on enhanced security — the primary justification given for the Great Hall Project in the first place, before it morphed into another Mall of America, though one largely behind protective glass and the potential reach of terrorists. Initially, both the north and south security checkpoints were to move out of the Great Hall and up to level 6 in order to free up more shopping space, but in order to stay within the $770 million budget allotted for these phases, the north security checkpoint will have to stay where it is for now, and the south security checkpoint will move directly above, to level 6.

Still, there are some bright spots to the revised plans.

“It no longer is going to have that mall feel that the former developer had,” said DIA chief of staff Cristal Torres DeHerrera during a virtual tour of the project last week. “But we still have a lot of good food and beverage and coffee options pre-security.”

As originally designed, the Great Hall was all about pre-security gatherings, a giant expanse where people waiting for travelers could hang out comfortably; a space as wide open as the West, where arriving visitors would first experience Colorado. But in 2001, just six years after the much-delayed DIA opened with this grand and glorious Great Hall, the country was immobilized by 9/11. The security systems that had been introduced during the plane hijackings of the ’70s were supersized across the country; in Denver, the new TSA system ultimately filled much of the Great Hall’s floor space. But other realities of air travel over the next two decades — the increasing amount of do-it-yourself check-in, for example — opened up space where ticket counters were no longer needed. Instead, under the original Great Hall Project plans, security incorporating all the latest technology would move to level 6, freeing up the Great Hall for...shops, more than half of them reserved for post-security customers.

Since that plan was adopted, of course, there’s been another unanticipated twist to travel: the pandemic, which has decimated air travel. DIA, the airport designed to handle up to 50 million travelers, clocked 69 million in 2019. The growth in traffic had already inspired projects on the concourses, including the 39-gate, $1.5 billion Gate Expansion Program that so far has come off without a hitch (but also without Ferrovial as a partner). At the start of the pandemic, air travel dropped to 5 percent of what it was at the same time last year; now, DIA is anticipating 40 percent fewer passengers in 2021 than two years ago — and it’s doing better than many other airports.

But even once the pandemic ends, travelers’ habits are likely to change. For starters, they’ll be more focused on getting to their destination than getting a deal on socks at the airport.

And the city, belatedly, is paying attention to that. “We’ve got to modify,” Hancock said six months into the pandemic. “We are in constant consultation with airlines and airline experts.” Better late than never...though getting his head in the game a few years earlier might have saved the city money and months, even years, of construction.

Still, against all odds, Denver International Airport — which seemed like such a far-off gamble back in the late ’80s — has paid off for the city. Says Hancock, “It’s still the place that passengers want to fly in and out of.”

Just not on Thanksgiving Eve, when you’ve been told to stay home by the mayor.

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