Thursday, November 23, 2017

Mile-High Walk Part 4 - Den on the Frontier

It was a hair before 7:00 AM, I’d driven 125 miles and flown a thousand more.  The heck just happened?  I was asleep in my bed eight hours ago!

Technology is pretty cool.

As was the case with both MDW and ORD in 2015, I planned for time to do a complete airport walk; this time, I planned carefully with the hope that we’d land, I’d deplane with time to spare to get to a great vantage point and catch the sun rise over the plains to the east.

Agh, short-armed it.

Well, we’ve got a schedule to keep.  Let’s get right to it.

Denver’s airport, or “DEN” in airport lingo, is comprised of three concourses and a main terminal.  Each of the three concourses and the terminal are all connected by an underground train, which is good both because DEN is big and because the train is the only way to get to the other two concourses from the first.

And that first concourse is where we find ourselves, right at one end, conveniently.  Concourse B and C have pretty much one main airline that uses them.  Concourse A, on the other hand, holds everybody else.

Each airline has its own little section in Concourse A, making connections fairly easy along the length of the concourse.  Delta, American, and all internationally based carriers call this concourse home.  The southern side of the concourse serves as Frontier’s base, making connections theoretically painless.  They serve 53 non-stop destinations from DEN over the course of a given year, if you can believe it, all from eight little gates.  Not bad for a ULCC.

Marching down the concourse, it’s easy to see where each carrier has staked out their claim, both from the gates, lounges, and the branding throughout the concourse.  The east end has five gates dedicated to American Airlines service to their major U.S. hubs, representing the smallest share of gates assigned to a mainline U.S. airline.  A staircase takes you down to a tiny addendum that services local airlines Great Lakes Airlines and PenAir, as well as ULCC Spirit Airlines. 

Frontier and other ULCCs have been the butt of airline jokes for a while, but Spirit Airlines has to have been the butt-iest.  Frontier’s my first time on a ULCC, but I’m still interested to give Spirit a try to see if it’s as awful as people say.  I doubt it is, but that’s just one perspective.  Spirit’s branding and color scheme is bright, flashy, and informal, not at all like the classic designs of legacy carriers that ferry the majority of travelers across the U.S. 

Great Lakes Airlines is the only commercial air link between Cheyenne, and several other local airports, and the outside world.  They mostly fly Beechcraft 1900 9-seaters and a handful of other, larger turboprop planes.  Having done this kind of turboprop fly-in once to get to St. Louis aboard Cape Air, it’s an experience I’d highly recommend.  There’s something neat about leaving the sticks in a little plane, entering the big city and seeing the world spread out below, and before you. 

Each concourse’s train station meets at a centralized node at the heart of the concourse.  These nodes really give the airport that open feel I always like in large hubs.  Tall ceilings, lots of windows, abstract architecture.  For now, we’ll keep moving to the other half.

In 2015, my wife and I landed here to begin our anniversary trip.  Six gates on the west side of Concourse A handle Delta, which send flights to their main hubs around the country, including a little hop to LAX, an airport with the unique distinction of being designated by all three major U.S. carriers as a hub.

Today, this flight’s going to Seattle, one of Delta’s newer hubs.  I’ve never been to Washington, but I’ve heard SEA is a nice airport.  Many aviation geeks head up to SEA both for the airport itself as well as the nearby Boeing factory and Payne Field, where brand-new, liveried jets run their test flights before delivery to their customers around the world.

Before we move on to the next concourse, I think it bears mentioning DEN’s innate optimism.

The signage in each concourse’s east wing points to X## to X99, indicating that there are 99 gates.  Well, this isn’t true for any of them, but DEN was built with expansion in mind.  DEN is, itself, an expansion.  Until the mid-90s, Denver’s air traffic was handled by Stapleton Airport.  When Denver’s needs grew too large, plans to build an airport in the suburbs of Denver emerged.  They bought a lot of land and built wide.  Stapleton was closed, it’s IATA designation of “DEN” was reassigned to the new airport, and developments sprung up on the old site of the airport.

Today, all three concourses at DEN can be spread out west and east without impacting the airfield, meaning that one day, there might actually be 99 gates.  As a forward-looking airport, they went ahead and put up the signs to indicate the future. 

Replacing the sign each time there was an extension couldn’t be terribly expensive, so I like that they advertise inevitable expansion to be plainly seen by transiting passengers.  The same is true coming the other direction, too.  There is no gate A1.  In fact, A26, across the hall from the gate in the last picture, is the westernmost gate in the concourse.  After seeing so many airports seemingly surprised by their popularity and scratching their heads figuring out how to meet it, it’s nice to know one airport is systematically prepared for growth.

Let’s zip down the line to Concourse B, Denver’s biggest and busiest.  To do that, let’s head down a pair of escalators at A’s central node, hop on one of the trains that swing by about every two minutes, and ride!

While Concourse A has a long way to go to hit 99 gates, Concourse B is pretty close.  Longer on either side than either A or C, B has about 70 gates and has been expanded twice.  Unlike Concourse A, Concourse B is all one airline: United Airlines.  The now-defunct Continental Airlines was merged with United several years ago, and since then, every other tenant of the concourse moved elsewhere, usually as part of a merger themselves.  Now, United holds all of the gates, making connections easier.

From the central node, we’ll head west to the older part of the concourse first. 

This part of the concourse hosts United’s larger flights, especially on the southern (left) side.  Long-haul flights to United’s far-flung destinations like Tokyo, Hawaii, and, occasionally, Costa Rica leave from these larger gates.  The other mainline United flights leave from here, either between other hubs or larger, regional destinations.  Many times, though, it’s fairly empty here.

This isn’t a bad thing; I love a big, empty, quiet space while I travel, too.  The western end of the concourse features a lovely view of the Rockies.  In fact, most views from DEN feature either the flat expanse of the High Plains and/or a view of the Front Range.  When you’re here, you can’t forget where you are.

I listen to lyricless music while I walk through airports, usually what would be defined as electronic, techno, or ambient music.  I carefully craft playlists to fit certain moods of travel, whether it’s high-paced, high-rhythm music while I’m charging across a terminal to make a tight connection, or slow-paced, mood music that I feel reflects the joy and excitement of travel.  When I’m in these quieter parts of the airport, I can actually hear what’s coming out of my earbuds, and it puts me at ease.  Sometimes, even with a structured schedule, I’ll sit down and take a break, listening to the smooth, ambient music I’ve selected, feeling my heartbeat, the weight of my bag on my shoulder, the dryness in my mouth from the low humidity of an airplane cabin, and imagine all the unseen places of the world that are just a flight away.

A quick glance at my phone tells me I need to keep moving.  I pull myself up from my solitary seat, reposition my camera bag, and head east.

Beth and I flew out of B46 in 2015 on our way home.  That particular flight went to Chicago, where I’d been months before on my Chicago walk.  Today, they’re off to San Francisco, a city that’s high on my list for a walk.  One day soon.

Concourse B’s easternmost sections are somewhat temporary additions to accommodate United Express, their regional affiliate, and the formidable amounts of traffic they provide to Denver. 

The first extension, which peels off the northern edge of the concourse’s eastern terminus, is a narrow corridor that, for lack of a better description, is like walking through a shipping container.  You board through the corridor, then file down to the actual gate, without a jetway, and walk planeside to board. 

Modern airline passengers in the U.S. don’t actually board planeside much anymore.  The first time I did it was back in Comair’s heyday in the 90s; our family was connecting in Cincinnati, so we flew from Louisville to Cincinnati, a two-hour drive at most, in a flight time that was filed as seventeen minutes.  By far the shortest flight I’ve ever been on, that little connector will always be memorable. 

You can’t get back there unless you’re actually flying, but even if I could, I’m not sure I’d have enough elbow room to hold up a camera.  This would be for low-volume routes like, you know, to Gillette, WY; Medford, OR; or Minot, ND.

The southern extension, on the other hand, is pretty unique.

At the end of the Concourse B, you hang a right, go down a corridor, and head down an escalator to a tarmac-level extension with small, regional jets on either side.  The jetways convey passengers at ground level, but it also provides a unique view of the airfield in general, including some neat parked jets.

This B757 heads between Denver and Reykjavik, Iceland daily, if you can believe it, departing here in the late afternoon.  Iceland has grown over the last few years as an exciting, accessible destination for young, budget-friendly travelers.  Put another way, my generation.  I’ve been hoping to get to Iceland for a while, but it’s on the back burner behind some other destinations.  Still, won’t see this livery in Louisville.

To be honest, the extension reminded me of STL’s main terminal; it was plain, utilitarian, and well-laid out, if not terribly interesting. 

I stopped for a second, charging my flashing camera battery and enjoying another energy bar.  I was a tiny bit ahead of schedule, so I could stand to pause and give myself and my camera some juice.  Concourse C wouldn’t take long.

After a few minutes, I packed up, emptied my camera bag of trash, and then made my way to the last concourse.

Concourse C is another single-tenant concourse, this time run by Southwest Airlines.  This has become more common around the country, as Southwest’s business model is different from legacy carriers, it makes sense to have a specific space to cater to their unique system.

Fittingly, this concourse has a plane suspended above it.  Unfittingly, it has bizarre architecture around its train station, one that I’ve seen several times before and still am unable to totally understand.

This concourse is open and quiet as well, but closer to the gates, things pick up.

In my opinion, Southwest-centered airports or concourses have a specific feel to them that’s distinct from normal airports.  BWI, MDW, and even SDF’s Southwest concourse have a unique aura.  They always seem to have good food options, a unique design, and little touches to distinguish them from other carriers.  I’m not sure how much say Southwest has on that, but it feels like there’s some, at least.  It could also be the clientele, who are usually families, younger travelers, and tourists that grant Southwest-oriented areas a bit of flair. 

Concourse C is abridged compared to the others, with only one section on its eastern side and two to the west.  A quick walkthrough is enough to check it off the list before boarding the people mover back to Concourse A.  While the train goes all the way back to the landside terminal and out into the world, I wanted to disembark in Concourse A for the walk across the pedestrian bridge.

After hopping off at concourse A, I went up three escalators to the upper mezzanine, following the signs to the bridge.

To the east and west, you can see Frontier’s staked claim.  Unlike seeing a row of Southwest planes, Frontier’s Airbuses each sport unique livery. 

No sign of Courtney the Cougar; N702FR must have left for greener pastures while I was walking.

This pedestrian bridge, which connects Concourse A to the main terminal, is somewhat unique, allowing planes to pass safely underneath it while onlookers watch.  It provides wonderful views of the Rockies, as most western-facing windows in the airport do. 

That about wraps it up airside.  After walking past the large “no re-entry” signs on the south side of the bridge, we get to perhaps the most visually recognizable building in all of Colorado: the Jeppesen Terminal.

The landside terminal is named for Elrey Jeppesen, famous Colorado-born aviation and navigation pioneer.  The roof’s design is designed to emulate the Rocky Mountains as well as the traditional homes of Native Americans from the High Plains: tipis.  The cavernous terminal has tons of food options and a museum to Jeppesen, among other things, but we’ve got a train to catch.  Moreover, there’s a couple more things to see outside before we head out.

Denver has recently built an all-new transportation complex outside the airport, complete with a fancy new Westin hotel.  The hotel’s modern architecture blends with the seemingly avant-garde stylings of the airport itself. 

Denver’s airport is huge, and someone’s gotta keep all those windows clean.  That guy right there.  Just that guy.  Well, no, probably not just him.

There’s an escalator that takes you down to the transit center, where the brand-new train station awaits.

When Beth and I were here in October 2015, this train station didn’t exist.  Now, less than a year later, you can take a train, without transfers, directly from the airport to downtown Denver.  Not a moment too soon!

The cost of the ticket is steep by city transit standards, $9.00, but it still beats a bus or heaven forbid a cab.  DEN is enormous, and for it to be so big, it has to be a long way from the city.  As the crow flies, I’m standing about 18 miles from Downtown, and on the flat plains of Colorado, you can really feel that distance.

I’ve got my ticket in hand, and the train that arrives here only goes one way, so it’s just a matter of waiting for the next one which, as it turns out, was pulling up now.

I took a seat on the now empty train and pulled out my journal, taking all the notes I’d need to make this post.  Forty minutes later, I’d be at historic Union Station and ready to commence my walk for real.  I love airports and all, but I travel for more than just travel’s sake.  Let’s explore Denver!

Until then, keep going!