DIA20: Viewpoint - 20 years of connecting Denver to the world

by Tom Clark

Metro Denver is the epicenter of the "fly-over zone" – beautiful mountains, verdant plains, and few people. As the editor of the Times of London once wrote in the late 1990s, "Denver has no reason to exist. Perhaps that's why its inhabitants engage in such superlatives."

He had flown here, non-stop, on British Airways, curious about this new, isolated BA destination called Denver.

What he learned during his week-long stay was that Coloradans were keenly aware of a rapidly emerging global economy and were intent on building the infrastructure necessary to accommodate global companies with direct air service to international business centers.

To its citizenry, a new airport was Colorado's "port" without water.

Beginning in 1987, as new airport negotiations with neighboring Adams County heated up, the business community was crafting a multi-year strategy for metro Denver becoming a global competitor. It included a licensed World Trade Center, international business training programs at Metro State and an improved state of Colorado exporting program in partnership with the U.S. Foreign and Commercial Service.

Key to the collaborative effort was Denver International Airport and its ability to reach Europe, Asia and Central/South America. Metro Denver's unique geographic location made it possible for a Boeing 747 to reach Frankfurt, Tokyo and Sao Paulo, Brazil, without refueling.

Within this triangle rests 65 percent of the gross world product. Thanks to CU Professor John Prosser's research and guidance, local business groups began a concentrated effort to secure either Lufthansa or British Airways service. Lufthansa/Frankfurt was first, followed by British Airways in the 1990s.

Other routes failed – Seoul, Munich, and numerous Mexico flights. But DIA staff and the metro Denver economic development groups never wavered. Icelandair's non-stop service to Reykjavik and on to Europe opened more destinations.

Two other prizes still eluded us as the century ended — Japan and Brazil. In 2012 and 2014, Colorado finally celebrated the inaugural direct flights to Tokyo and Panama City, both operated by United Airlines. Panama City is a solid replacement for Sao Paulo, serving as a jumping-off spot to all of South America and much of the Caribbean.

To imagine metro Denver without its incredible airport is almost impossible today. While the region suffered through DIA's naysayers during the crucial elections that spawned the airport, many never lost sight of the importance of global connectivity becoming a reality.

DIA today is a $26 billion economic engine, the largest economic generator in the Rocky Mountains. Every new foreign flight drives additional millions of dollars into our economy.

The tireless efforts on the part of the business community and a dedicated airport staff kept metro Denver and Colorado's economic heart beating throughout it all.

We are no longer a "fly-over" region. We are a "fly-to" region on the global stage.

Tom Clark

Former CEO of Metro Denver Economic Development Council

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