Transforming Denver airport

Ms Kim Day, a former architect, helped make Denver airport the top airport in the United States.
Ms Kim Day, a former architect, helped make Denver airport the top airport in the United States.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Ms Kim Day, a former architect, helped make Denver airport the top airport in the United States.
Ms Kim Day, a former architect, helped make Denver airport the top airport in the United States.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Airports are an inevitable part of the lives of most travellers. But few would say they have a passion for them.

Ms Kim Day, the chief executive of Denver International Airport, is an exception.

In a previous life, the 61-year-old was an architect, and she says that shaped her career running airports.

"I see the world and airports differently than most people," she told the audience at Skift Global Forum, a travel conference held in Brooklyn recently. "I can't walk into a space without critiquing it and wanting to rearrange the furniture. And I plan every vacation around buildings and spaces around the world that I want to see."

Since taking over at the Denver airport in 2008, she has helped to transform it into the envy of airports around the country: At this year's World Airport Awards, it held the eighth spot for airports with more than 50 million passengers a year, the top US ranking.

One improvement is new: a 519-room Westin Hotel that opens on Thursday just next to the iconic canopies of the Jeppesen terminal. An adjoining public plaza will host events and two restaurants, each with outdoor seating. And in April, there will be the addition of a light rail, with access from a terminal under the hotel and just a few minutes from security, that gets travellers to Union Square in downtown Denver in just 37 minutes.

After her speech at the forum, Ms Day sat down to talk about what is working in Denver, the present and future of airports and what American airports can learn from their overseas counterparts. Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with her.

What do you see in the future of airports? What traveller needs have to be filled?

You will be seeing better restaurants with more variety. Different retail options.

What's evolving in Asia - and I think you'll see this in the US shortly - is that you go into a shop and you'll get to feel and try something on, but you order it and it's delivered to your hotel or home.

The relationship between airlines, airports and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is a mystery to most. What are the challenges there and what can be streamlined?

Incheon airport in Seoul, South Korea, is ranked No. 1 by passengers every year.

I was talking to one of the people there and I asked: "What is it? What's so magical?" And he said, "It's because everyone - airport and airline personnel, security, concessionaires - we all share the same vision and we all deliver the same level of customer service."

So that's one of our goals. Our airlines are a bit easier; we have a good working relationship with them.

The TSA is a little removed, so that's a tougher nut to crack. But we'll start with the ones we can deal with - getting our airlines on board, getting our concessionaires on board.

What are some of your favourite airports overseas?

Love Munich - it is a sister airport. It's so easy to transfer there. It really believes in the customer experience. Love the shopping.

I love Schiphol in Amsterdam. The brand is so strong. You walk in and the tulips just overwhelm you.

Narita in Tokyo is another sister airport. It's another really strong brand. You have an opportunity to have one last experience of Tokyo before you get on the flight.

There's been a lot of talk here in New York about what to do with LaGuardia Airport, with a proposed US$4-billion (S$5.7- billion) overhaul. Do you have any advice for those involved?

When LaGuardia opened, it was beautiful and it worked. And it suffered through years of neglect and a lack of vision. So what you do needs to be done with conviction and there needs to be a continual commitment to keep it a wonderful asset. We feel our responsibility at Denver is to maintain our asset and improve it for those who come after us.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 15, 2015, with the headline 'Transforming Denver airport'. Print Edition | Subscribe