In a three-airline town, the company with the heart logo is striving to show Denver who loves it the most. And it plans to demonstrate its affection by pumping $100 million into a new maintenance hangar at Denver International Airport.
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly opened his company’s annual shareholders meeting in Denver on Wednesday morning by describing the city as “without a doubt the fastest-growing city in the history” of the low-cost carrier.
Based in Dallas, Southwest first came to DIA in 2006, getting a modest start with only 13 daily departures and three nonstop destinations. By this August, the airline expects to offer 224 daily departures out of Denver to 70 nonstop destinations, Kelly said, with more routes on the way. The airline now employs about 4,200 people in the Denver area.
Among the employees are 75 maintenance staff members who are likely pretty pumped about the forthcoming hangar project Kelly announced Wednesday. For now, those workers mostly do their jobs outdoors, airlines officials said.
The 130,000-square-foot hangar will have space inside for three Boeing 737 aircraft, Kelly said, with parking outside for eight more. Work on the project is expected to get underway in the coming months, with completion targeted before the end of 2020. The hangar will be the seventh in Southwest’s network, joining facilities in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and Orlando, Fla.
“Our investment here has paid off very handsomely. We are adding more flights this year and we are planning for more growth in the future,” Kelly said of Denver. “(This hangar) is further evidence, of course, of our investment in the community.”
Southwest didn’t serve the most passengers at DIA in 2018. That achievement belonged to United Airlines, which when counting passengers catching connecting flights to other destinations, served about 28 million flyers to Southwest’s 18.7 million. But when it came to origin and destination flights — people flying out of Denver or into Denver as a final destination — Southwest beat out its competitor 13 million passengers to 10.6 million.
“Southwest Airlines is a vital partner for Denver International Airport, and we are proud the airline has decided to make this significant investment in our city,” Mayor Michael Hancock said in a news release.
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Southwest also hopes to take advantage of concourse expansion project underway at DIA that will add 39 gates to the airport. The airline currently leases 24 gates in Concourse C, which will get 16 new gates as part of the project. Southwest wants all of those, a sentiment Kelly said he has shared with the airport, the mayor, the governor and anybody “who will listen to us.”
“With our productivity, we could do a lot of flights with that,” Kelly said.
Southwest isn’t the only airline with executives publicly lobbying for more real estate on DIA concourses. United Airlines officials last year said they have claimed 11 gates being built through the expansion but want more. In Kelly’s view, Denver is fortunate to have three major airlines — Southwest, United and Frontier Airlines — all growing and jockeying for space at DIA. The atmosphere is not the same in other markets across the country, he said.
“If you look at the benefit for the Denver community, it’s just outstanding,” Kelly said. “We’re up for the competition.”