MIAMI — Twenty years ago commercial aviation in Denver was in a period of transition, as the city prepared to open a brand new international airport. The original airport, Stapleton International Airport, opened almost 85 years ago on October 17, 1929, and operated for 65 continuous years.
The last flight left the airport on February 25, 1995, and Denver International Airport opened the next day. I went to college in Colorado from 1990 to 1994, and this gave me many opportunities to fly in and out of Denver. Join us for some plane-spotting at Stapleton back in 1994.
United Airlines established Denver as a hub city after the signing of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. In 1993, United unveiled a new livery, commonly referred to as “battleship gray”, which replaced the “rainbow & tulip” scheme introduced in 1973. During this period, airlines used different fleet utilizations, compared to today.
For example, it was very common for United to use DC-10s for the 90-minute flight from Denver to Chicago O’Hare. This was a time in which airlines were less concerned about planes being full, and jet fuel prices were very cheap, compared to the post 9/11 environment of today. In fact, United sometimes used the DC-10 for one of its shortest routes that connected Denver to Colorado Springs 60 miles away.
I once flew on a United DC-10 from Fort Lauderdale to Denver, via Chicago. The one time I had an opportunity to fly the Denver-Colorado Springs segment was on a TWA Boeing 727, originating in St. Louis. The flight lasted 12 minutes at an altitude of 12,000 feet above sea level, roughly 7,000 feet above ground level, keeping in mind the higher altitudes of Denver and Colorado Springs.
This route was usually operated by a Boeing 737-200 or -300. Twenty years ago, the subsidiaries and aircraft operating as United Express were also different. Air Wisconsin flew to smaller cities in Colorado, especially the ski resorts, using the BAe 146-100. Mesa Airlines also supported United Express, and it used Beechcraft 1900D turboprops. Another airline in transition, in more ways than one, was Continental Airlines. Continental had also established a post-deregulation hub. However, in October 1994, the airline closed its pilot and flight attendant base at Stapleton, and operations significantly decreased. Like United, Continental was also changing colors during this time. It began to shed its “meatball” scheme, which had been around in 1968 and adopted the “globe” that the merged United-Continental retains to this day.
When I traveled home to Florida, I had a couple of flights from Denver on Continental. As was the case with United, Continental also used widebodies to connect its hubs. On both flights, I connected in Continental’s Houston hub aboard one of its Airbus A300s. At Stapleton, Continental also had regional operations. One of the feeder airlines was GP Express Airlines, which operated Beechcraft 1900Cs to smaller cities. A resurrected version of Frontier Airlines filled the void at Stapleton left by Continental in 1994, and today it still uses Denver as a hub.
Besides United and Continental, I had the opportunity to fly on American, America West, Northwest, and TWA to and from Denver. On American, I flew on McDonnell Douglas MD-82/83 aircraft to its hubs in Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Miami. Furthermore, I got to fly on an America West Boeing 737-200 to its Phoenix hub and on a Northwest Boeing 727-200 to its Detroit hub.
In addition to the TWA flight I mentioned earlier, I also remember a Denver – St. Louis – Orlando – Fort Lauderdale “milkrun” on the same 727. TWA flew the 727 or the MD-83 to Stapleton from its St. Louis hub.
Other major carriers, like Delta, also operated in Stapleton. Several factors contributed to the decision to close the airport and open up a much larger facility further east. First, more separation was necessary between the parallel runways, especially during adverse weather conditions, such as low visibility. Second, there was no room for expansion, which made it difficult for other airlines to add Stapleton as a destination.
Third, local residents sued the city over aircraft noise. Last, Adams Country threatened legal action if any of the runways were extended into Rocky Mountain Arsenal lands. Today, the area once occupied by Stapleton consists of residential neighborhoods, commercial warehouses, and a large shopping mall called the Shops at Northfield Stapleton.
In the spring of 1994, an airshow commemorated the completion of Stapleton’s replacement, Denver International Airport, and it was held at the new airport. The new Denver International Airport was supposed to start operations that same year. However, the actual opening faced many delays that pushed the opening to the following year.
See more historical photos of Stapleton Airport here.