GM Phillip Washington On How New Infrastructure Funding Will Power Denver’s Largest Regional Economic Engine – DIA

Phil Washington

In 2021, President Biden signed a massive 1.2 trillion dollar infrastructure bill aimed to address growing concerns in the country with regards to aging infrastructure in the face of continued population and density growth. VX News spoke with CEO of Denver International Airport, Phil Washington, on how his airport is tackling that exponential growth and where that infrastructure money is being put to use. Washington also shares the economic implications of making DIA one of the most traveled through airports in the Rockies, as well as his thoughts on what it will take to ensure LA’s Olympic Games in ’28 will be a successful event.

VX News: The U.S. Government is looking to invest 1.2 trillion dollars into infrastructure through the US Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. As CEO of the Denver International Airport, what is your plan for utilizing that and other bills that are coming our way?

Phil Washington: We are putting the funding to good use. Right now, we are on the third tranche of bipartisan infrastructure dollars for airport improvement programs. Currently, we are using that discretionary funding for a new baggage system. In many cases we are still using the original baggage system and we really need that new system, which includes a new baggage spine from the terminal all the way out to the three concourses.

Only 25 billion of that 1.2 trillion is for airports. Airports Council International – North America recommended 151 billion dollars over the next five years. How do you get from what you got to what you need?

I agree that airports should have gotten more. Hopefully there is more down the road, especially considering what other modes of transportation received, including transit ports. Our hope is that within the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, Congress and the Department of Transportation will understand that more people are traveling, and thus most airports, if not every airport in the country, is currently having to pinch dollars. That 25 billion is being stretched by airport directors, and we absolutely need more money considering the growth at Denver International Airport (DIA) and other airports around the country. We need more, but we're also thankful for what we have received.

You noted at the VerdeXchange 2023 conference DIA’s Vision 100. Please elaborate on what DIA’s Vision 100 includes and promises.

We created Vision 100 when I arrived at DIA. I give a lot of credit to our staff, who endured my chalkboard scribblings of my vision for this airport. DIA was designed for 50 million annual passengers, but by the end of this year, we will have had 78 million passengers. Initially, we forecasted 100 million by 2030 or 2032, but our growth has accelerated, and we may actually reach 100 million passengers by 2027. Vision 100 asks what we must do to accommodate 100 million annual passengers.

Accommodating 100 million passengers includes improving ingress and egress to the airport. The last time I personally flew out of Denver I missed the flight because of traffic delays both entering the airport and through security. How is DIA currently addressing its passenger growth challenges?

Before becoming CEO here, I helped build the A Line on the RTD. We want to increase the mode share on the transit side, but that's not enough. We recognize that not everyone can use the train.

We have an 11-mile roadway called Peña Boulevard, and that boulevard is run and maintained by this airport. We are convening a study to determine how we should address the roadway and the mode share to the airport. This study will determine whether we should add a managed lane or an extra lane to Peña Boulevard.

We recently hosted a great visit with the Administrator of TSA, and I asked him about his model to determine the authorized headcount for my airport and all airports broadly. In 2023, we have fewer TSA agents than we had in 2019, but we are growing exponentially. The Administrator very graciously agreed to convene a roundtable with the 20 largest airports in the country and bring in his resource allocation folks to explain the inputs determining an authorized headcount for airports. I’m anxious to see the inputs and the assumptions being made to determine the headcount.

You repeatedly have asserted publicly that you want DIA to be the greenest airport in the country. How does DIA become and remain the greenest airport in the USA?

Yes, I did declare that this airport will be the greenest in the world. I was originally quoted that the airport would be the greenest in the nation, and then a city councilperson challenged me to think even more broadly.

Our sustainability approach is very aggressive, and since my arrival at DIA, we have embarked on many sustainability projects. There were a bunch of abandoned oil wells that were costing us more to maintain than to remove. I directed that the oil wells be capped, and the final one was capped last month. We have the largest array of solar panels probably in the whole country. DIA has a performance energy contract that guarantees 20-25% energy savings by using efficient lights in our terminal. We recycle many kinds of waste and are researching a pilot program for sustainable aviation fuel and electric vehicles for our airport fleet.

Many in the Denver area know that DIA is the largest economic engine in the region & State of Colorado. Denver’s new Mayor recognized this when he reappointed you to lead the DIA. Please share how economically significant DIA has become.

Currently, DIA’s economic contribution to the state of Colorado is $36.4 billion. When we finish Vision 100, that number will jump to a staggering $71 billion. Part of that number is hotel stays. It also includes the job creation that we’re doing. We will go from about 220,000 jobs at this airport to 475,000 jobs including direct, indirect, or induced jobs, meaning that we will still have more than 37,000 employees on site, and the rest of those jobs will be what we generate all over the region. We're also proud of our program that hires ex-offenders on the land side, doing landscaping for example. We are extremely proud of this economic impact.

The economic engine will only grow as we bring in more flights. We just announced a new flight to Dublin Ireland and will be announcing a flight from the continent of Africa to Denver sometime next year.

Please address the large DIA capital projects that you are currently engaged with and the value of public-private partnerships to cost effectively deliver these project on time and on budget. And also please share how valuable, re your current responsibilities, your previous leadership experience at LA & Denver Metro have been?

Fundamentally, I believe that we must allow for innovation in our capital projects, and that innovation comes from allowing for alternative technical concepts in the build, design, and construction of projects. I think the government is far too prescriptive in laying out the specifications for projects. I want our specifications to be performance based, but I don’t want them to be too prescriptive. I want to tell the contractor my goals for a project, and for them to tell me how they can get it done. When we built the A Line from downtown Denver to the airport, I said that I wanted to get from point to point in 30-35 minutes, and asked how we could accomplish that.

I also want minority business participation, and not just limited to subcontracting. I want to have small and minority businesses priming projects and traditional primes subbing to them. I want to be able to create generational wealth in underserved communities through our projects. Later today, I'm speaking to our Business Development Academy, an academy of about 30 minority businesses. I’m going to discuss how to do business in an aviation environment specifically.

At DIA, we have billions of dollars in projects. When I was in LA, we had $20-25 billion in projects in the city at any one time that we were overseeing. Those principles along with being on time and on budget remained the same for me.

In May, you were on a plenary at the VerdeXchange conference with POLB’s Mario Cordero where you discussed how abnormal climate events affect the delivery of Port services and how, you specifically, are managing climate challenges at DIA. Please elaborate…..

Last holiday period one of our carriers experienced a disruption, and our airport became an epicenter of that disruption which impacted the entire national airspace. An argument can be made that this happened because it was colder than normal. I immediately asked the airlines to participate in an After-Action Review, which they agreed to, and we published.

As we continue to have these abnormal climate events, it's important that we have after-action and lessons learned documents. We should also identify the climate mega-trends that we see coming that will have an impact on infrastructure and general aviation and determine how to mitigate them in the future. We are doing this at Denver International Airport. During my time in the military, we had conflict plans for just about every corner of the earth. When something happened, we could take the plans off the shelf and utilize them. I want this type of library for climate events that we can pull off and immediately implement.

Large sporting events like the Paris, Brisbane, and Los Angeles Olympic games bring with them a surge of traveling passengers. How should airports address this challenge?

We should all be thinking about how large events impact all airports. We are all connected to the national airspace, and people flying to the LA games in 2028 will probably connect at my airport here. I don't think about any one airport, I think about how I can facilitate the smooth flow through LA from my position here.

Lastly, LA World Airports is looking for a new GM. Given the impending LA Olympic games in 2028, what will LAWA and City leaders need to prioritize and address?

Leaders of Los Angeles have a lot to think about. I think some knowledge of big project management, or big project oversight will be very important. LA must also focus on their capital projects, including their consolidated Rent-A-Car facility (ConRAC), which I visited earlier this year. The LA metro station is another project that needs to be finished, which is about 900 or so feet away from the ConRAC.

Political acumen around the Commission and elected officials, as well as the Olympic Committee, is also necessary. Getting the employees ready through professional development is important. LA wants to be an example for how to use electric vehicle fleets, so understanding EV technology will be necessary. Having ground transportation knowledge, in addition to aviation knowledge is also critical, because they need to know how people will be getting around during the games for weeks that they are in LA.

“Fundamentally, I believe that we must allow for innovation in our capital projects, and that innovation comes from allowing for alternative technical concepts in the build, design, and construction of projects. I think the government is far too prescriptive in laying out the specs for projects. I want our specs to be performance based…” - Phil Washington