DEN, a wacky airport of misery

Since the late 1990s, I’ve been in a bad relationship with DEN (Denver International Airport). I’m probably the only person who laments the loss of Stapleton to redevelopment, thinks it is stupid to call DEN by a fake airport code (DIA), and finds the whole configuration of the airport for passenger traffic a depressing farce. In my opinion, DEN has only three things going for it:

  1. An easy-to-find Chick-Fil-A
  2. A great shoe shine operation
  3. And, um… er… hmm…

… okay, let’s call it two things.

Every problem I’ve ever had with that tragic mess of an airport has been human-designed and human-made. Nature presents its own set of issues that we can’t control — we can only make smart choices. When it comes to nature, engineers try to work around physical reality by making calculated decisions. Sometimes the humans get it right and sometimes, well, they (we) get it wrong.

Without a doubt, DEN gets its share of weather. It is right off the mountains for snowstorms and on the thunderstorm launchpad for the Great Plains, so most frequent flyers know that the location of the airport isn’t great. It suffers from a lot of turbulence and has flight paths that flow through naturally-occurring patterns of weather events. For about half the year, flying in and out of DEN is an amusement ride. Way back in the planning stage for Denver’s state-of-the-art air travel gateway, there probably was a better location for the “new” airport, but for whatever reason, it was plopped down in an area plagued by aggressive winds that toss little planes like kites. Choice made and that’s now a fact of DEN life.

In all my travels through DEN when nature “commits” to messing up the airport it picks one mode of disruption. A while ago, however, I had a first. A freak thunderstorm, snowstorm, rainstorm, and wind squall descended on the terminals and for 90 minutes plunged the airport into utter chaos. Heck, there probably was a tornado, hail and frogs falling from the sky somewhere on the field, too.

Is it DEN’s fault that it had a biblical-grade everything storm? No, not really. The die was cast when the decision was made to build the airport where it now sits. Weather patterns existed before humans did and a calculated engineering decision was made based on (flawed?) data. The unpredictable aspect of DEN weather coupled with airline scheduling makes it even more of an airport defined by traveler apprehension, tight connections and passenger misery.

That night my flight was about 90 minutes late into LAX. The deicing window for a 777 wasn’t long enough at DEN to make even a loose LAX connection, so I looked to spending the night in Los Angeles and getting home in the morning. By the time the plane was deiced, the event was over, spring returned with broken skies, well above freezing temps, and a lovely sunset.

Sigh. Just another wacky trip through a bad airport.