Transportation

New DIA Boss Phil Washington: The Size of the Sh*t Show He's Inheriting

Phil Washington has just been named the new CEO of Denver International Airport.
Phil Washington has just been named the new CEO of Denver International Airport. denvergov.org
On June 7, Mayor Michael Hancock introduced Phil Washington as the next chief executive officer of Denver International Airport. Pending approval by Denver City Council, Washington will take over as CEO from Kim Day, who's retiring next month after thirteen years in the gig.

Washington certainly seems excited about taking on this challenge, and that's good. Because right now, DIA is, to use a technical term, a shit show.

He's definitely got experience dealing with large and unwieldy institutions. Washington served as assistant general manager for Denver's Regional Transportation District (RTD) from 2000 to 2009 before being elevated to the general manager post, which he manned until 2015. During his tenure, he implemented the FasTracks program and oversaw the West Corridor Rail Line and Denver Union Station projects, both of which were completed early. RTD's biggest recent crises, including staffing shortages and declining ridership, didn't strike full force until Washington moved to Los Angeles County, where he headed up that municipality's regional transportation authority. (He was also on the Biden/Harris administration's transportation transition team.) Nice timing.

DIA, for its part, is the third-busiest airport in the country (and among the ten busiest on the planet), and it's clearly bouncing back strong from the pandemic. According to aviation industry website OAG, Denver's airport boasted two of the ten most popular domestic routes in the entire country during May. Here's the list for the month:
1: Atlanta-Fort Lauderdale — 250,824 seats
2. Atlanta-Orlando — 237,012 seats
3. Atlanta-Miami — 230,626 seats
4. Denver-Phoenix — 215,136 seats
5. Las Vegas-Los Angeles — 213,021 seats
6. Dallas/Fort Worth-Los Angeles — 211,121 seats
7. Anchorage-Seattle — 198,488 seats
8. New York JFK-Los Angeles — 196,384 seats
9. Honolulu-Los Angeles — 192,123 seats
10. Denver-Chicago O'Hare — 190,805 seats
Unfortunately, all those folks flying in and out of DIA are seeing the facility at its worst. The 2019 termination of the $1.8 billion renovation contract for the airport's Great Hall resulted in further delays of apparently endless construction that's made getting around the once-beautiful space seem like a scene from Mad Max: Fury Road.

The mayor's office notes that 69 million passengers passed through DIA in 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and estimates that the facility generates more than $33.5 billion in regional economic activity during a normal year. As of 2019, the airport had 214 nonstop destinations, including international ones such as Tokyo, Paris, Zurich and Reykjavik.

Right now, however, DIA isn't putting its best face forward, and construction will be ongoing for years to come. The airport's Great Hall Project dashboard shows phase one of the plan now 76.4 percent complete, at a cost to date of $113.9 million. But phase two hasn't even started, and that timeline extends into the second quarter of 2024. Phase two's cost is estimated at $170 million.

Scenarios like that make it tough to determine whether to congratulate Washington on his new job...or offer condolences.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts