DIA traffic hit a near-record low in 2020 — but as more people travel, COVID-19 concerns persist

The pandemic nearly turned Denver International Airport’s clock back to its first full year of operation, with passenger traffic plummeting to below 34 million in 2020. New figures released Monday show that’s the lowest annual total since 1996.

But the low numbers — a drop of 51% compared to 2019’s record-high 69 million passengers — are fading on DIA’s trains and concourses, worrying some public health experts who view airports as among the largest potential Petri dishes during the coronavirus pandemic.

At the peak of the heavy Christmas travel period in 2020, traffic through DIA’s security checkpoints reached 60% of what it was in late 2019. That is a rough measurement of outgoing travel but doesn’t include connecting passengers.

After the holiday spike subsided, checkpoints returned to roughly half of the typical pre-pandemic flow. Pandemic restrictions in other parts of the state and U.S. economy are easing up, though, and it’s likely more stir-crazy travelers will take to the air.

Already, the strange pandemic upheaval has DIA officials anticipating its total of 33.7 million passengers in 2020 will be enough to rank the airport as the nation’s third-busiest for the year, behind Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth. That’s up from the fifth-busiest prior to the pandemic, and DIA has been faring better than many other airports, both in terms of traffic and finances.

And as crowds slowly return, DIA points out it has ramped up cleaning and taken other precautionary COVID-19 measures. It was among the first airports to require mask-wearing in its spaces, and that policy is now buttressed by an even stronger national mandate that requires travelers to keep masks up between bites of food or sips of drinks. The Transportation Security Administration announced last week that its agents may issue fines to mask-resistant travelers.

But DIA has several choke points, including one that’s unavoidable for the bulk of its passengers — the underground train that connects people flying into or out of Concourses B and C. Those on Concourse A flights can take the train or walk over a bridge to the terminal.

“It’s especially a concern now that we’ve got these virus variants that are circulating in the U.S. that have higher transmissibility potential,” said Glen Mays, a professor of health policy at the Colorado School of Public Health.

Settings such as the DIA train are high-risk environments, he added, even though “masks can help to reduce that risk somewhat. But they aren’t by any means a complete solution to limit the risk. … In those places where there’s limited air exchange, the viral particles that we’re breathing out are accumulating rapidly.”

Dr. Kurt Papenfus strongly suspects his COVID-19 infection originated on DIA’s train. In the fall, the public health officer and chief of staff at a small hospital in Cheyenne County on Colorado’s Eastern Plains flew into DIA from rural Maine, where he and his wife were isolating. After boarding the terminal train, he grew concerned as a crowd filled the car around him.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Travelers wait for their flights in Concourse B of Denver International Airport on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020.

He said he was wearing a cloth mask on the train but had removed his medical-grade mask after exiting the plane. He developed COVID-19 symptoms a week later, he said, and spent two extended stays in Denver-area hospitals with a life-threatening case.

“This is an extremely dangerous problem that needs to be addressed immediately,” Papenfus, who is recovering, wrote about the train in letters to city and state officials in November.

For its part, DIA said it’s difficult to pinpoint whether a person contracted coronavirus at the airport, adding that it urges all travelers to follow hygiene and masking recommendations in public places.

Train is only option for many

The train has been a vulnerability for DIA since it opened, with no walkways or other alternative to move people to and from its farthest concourses.

And the crowding at times has been more intense than the reduced flow of passengers last year suggests. Several times a day, crowds heading toward the terminal swell as banks of flights arrive during short windows.

During DIA’s busiest hours in recent months, 4,000 or more people went through security screening, according to DIA-provided estimates. Typically about 90% use the main-floor checkpoints and then head directly down to the train.

Mays said he’d like to see more “creative solutions” to limit crowding on the trains.

But DIA spokeswoman Emily Williams said the airport has done what it can to address the choke point, including cleaning the train cars each time they complete a loop and other disinfectant measures.

“The airport is running all 31 train cars as frequently as possible,” she said, putting the system at full capacity. “However, at peak times during the day, train cars can become crowded.”

Travelers spend up to six minutes on the train, which is shorter than the 15-minute period health experts typically highlight as posing a higher risk for coronavirus transmission. But crowding can continue on the escalators up to the terminal and into an plaza where construction walls from a renovation project constrict movement.

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