The Denver City Council approved more than $300 million in airport contract additions Monday night, clearing the way for more concourse projects — along with a big change to how passengers will board all Frontier Airlines flights.
Denver International Airport’s third-largest carrier mostly uses nine traditional gates with jetways on Concourse A. By early 2024, it plans to move all operations to 14 gates in an expanded ground-loading facility on the eastern end of the same concourse.
Passengers will board and exit planes from the tarmac, using ramps and stairs connected to each plane’s front and rear doors. Frontier executives signed a new lease that’s expected to last until 2034 and said the new setup, which has been more common at DIA for smaller regional jets, will speed loading and unloading. But it also will expose passengers more directly to the elements during extreme weather.
The approvals for DIA’s latest projects received just two dissenting votes, but some council members expressed frustration with the airport’s contracting approach.
The airport awarded $1.5 billion in contracts for the Concourse Expansion Program to several construction, design and management firms in late 2017 for expansions that through this year are adding 39 new gates, all claimed by United and Southwest airlines. Since then, DIA twice has asked the council to amend those deals to expand their scope and add new upgrade projects, without seeking fresh bids.
With Monday’s approvals, those contracts are now worth a combined $2.4 billion.
“I certainly understand the time crunch … but I also don’t think it’s appropriate that when we’re looking at contracts, two of these five (deals) are over $1 billion dollars at this point,” Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer said, referring to two joint construction ventures, Holder-FCI and Turner-Flatiron, that have marshaled different components. “For us not to send those back out to bid is just not acceptable.”
She voted no, along with Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. Councilwoman Robin Kniech voted yes but said her patience was wearing thin on the airport repeatedly seeking exceptions on big contract amendments to a city executive order that otherwise might require new competitive bids.
A DIA official defended the practice earlier this month by saying the big construction firms “act as general contractors,” with much of the new work to be subcontracted out to smaller companies.
The expansion work on the ground-load facility for Frontier will cost an estimated $183 million, including some costs borne directly by DIA. It will recoup some of the expense through the airline’s gate rents.
The contract additions also include repaving of apron areas at some older gates, new de-icing pads and roughly $50 million in insurance-covered repairs on the east end of Concourse B. That’s where a hot-water line break caused extensive damage to a nearly complete gate expansion in December.
The council on Monday also approved Frontier’s new long-term lease as part of a block vote.