DENVER — Traveling through the Denver International Airport can feel like a trip in itself these days.
Between the long TSA lines, canceled flights, construction and full parking lots, travelers have a lot of hurdles to overcome these days even before boarding their flight.
The airport is dealing with several separate issues that have compounded on one another to create a hectic experience at different times of the day.
Construction has added physical obstacles in the way of passengers and caused confusion about how to navigate around the airport. The airport has added staff wearing purple shirts to try to help.
In a statement to Denver7, TSA partially blamed the construction for constraining its ability to open additional security lanes. It also said the airport is one of the busiest in the country and passengers continue to try to bring prohibited items, like guns, through the checkpoint, which slows down the process as bags need to be opened.
The construction headaches are not new, though, and the airport is hoping to have phase one of the project completed and the temporary walls removed later this month.
“We are really focused on the future, but also we understand that we need to focus on what’s happening today, and so maintaining what we have, making sure people are aware if there are long lines, what they can do about that,” airport spokesperson Alex Renteria said.
The airport is also seeing a big bump in travelers these days, nearing the record-breaking travel numbers it experienced in 2019. It's bracing for what promises to be a very busy holiday travel season.
However, it’s also dealing with a severe staffing shortage and trying to bring in new employees to help.
It also is working to restore programs it had previously cut due to budgetary constraints, like the real-time wait times at the various security checkpoints online. DIA is hoping to have the service restored by the end of the year.
Like the rest of the travel industry, air travel came to a screeching halt during the pandemic, and many employees were either laid off or furloughed.
Skylar McKinley, the regional director of public affairs for AAA, says airports across the country have had a difficult time trying to staff up again now that travel has resumed.
“You basically can’t shut off in the industry overnight and then expect to turn it back on overnight,” McKinley said. “It’s unfortunate, but this is just a reality of an unprecedented time.”
Some companies are trying to raise wages or offer sign-up bonuses for new employees. However, McKinley projects that the staffing issues will continue through the end of 2021 and likely well into 2022 or even 2023.
He also foresees a lot of strain on airports around the holidays.
“The airlines will accommodate you, TSA will accommodate you, everybody will accommodate you, it just might have to be for a while on their terms and not yours. That’s not how the travel industry likes to operate,” he said. “Things will get back to normal, but it will take a long time, and you should expect the unexpected.”
He advises passengers to book early and build in extra buffer time around their trips.
The staffing issue is so bad, DIA closed the Mount Elbert and Pikes Peak parking lots due to a lack of shuttle drivers.
Then over the holiday weekend, RTD performed some maintenance on the A-line and the on-site parking on both the east and west ends of the airport quickly reached capacity, causing more headaches for passengers.
“I think last weekend what we experienced was an anomaly,” Renteria said.
However, DIA is expecting the parking lots to fill back up this weekend and says the airport is looking for ways to make sure the lots don’t all reach capacity.
Renteria is encouraging people who plan on driving to the airport to plan ahead, check online for the lot capacity and consider offsite options, which are more reasonably priced than the garage or even economy lots.
The airport is hoping to have the Pikes Peak and Mount Elbert lots open before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Denver city councilman Kevin Flynn, who chairs the Business, Arts, Workforce & Aviation Services committee told Denver7 in an email the Pikes Peak lot is tentatively scheduled to reopen on Nov. 19 with a contingent plan to try to open earlier on an intermittent basis.
However, Flynn says because of the staffing issues, the shuttle likely won’t be running as often so the wait times could be longer.
For now, DIA says it’s working to try to smooth out the passenger experience but also bracing for an anticipated holiday rush.
“We don’t want people to associate the airport and stress or frustration or with long lines," Renteria said. "We’re doing everything in our power to make sure that what people have experienced ceases."