As Denver International Airport’s budget chief, Patrick Heck flew to Singapore in a $10,159 business-class seat to “network with finance executives around the world.”
John Ackerman, the airport’s commercial manager, paid $9,159 for a business-class ticket to Geneva as a speaker invited “to present DIA successes with concessions.”
By comparison, United Airlines offers economy-class round-trip flights this month from Denver to Geneva for as little as $1,518 and to Singapore starting at $1,815.
Heck, Ackerman, airport manager Kim Day and two other top DIA officials traveled internationally 50 times in 2012 and 2013.
They rarely occupied economy seats on those trips. Under a policy that Day approved, airport employees qualify for business-class seats when a flight exceeds five hours or total flight time exceeds eight hours.
Those terms differ from the restrictive wording of Denver’s business-travel policy for other departments of city government, which requires coach class “in the interest of economy” on all domestic and foreign flights.
The city makes exceptions if a coach ticket would cost more, a disability requires a business seat, or an employee lacks time to sleep after arriving. Denver officials denied any difference between airport and city policies, however, citing another exception that allows business class whenever a written justification is approved.
Beth Machann, the city controller, said she did not know DIA employees regularly buy business- class tickets when traveling abroad.
But after reviewing DIA’s policy with airport officials and the mayor’s office, she concluded it “is even a little more restrictive as to what is defined as ‘international’ as they do not allow business class for Mexico or Canada.”
Machann said she could not estimate how often other city employees fly business class overseas because her system does not differentiate between domestic and international flights.
But, she added, “I don’t think any other departments other than economic development and the mayor’s office fly internationally. For the most part, DIA is the one.”
Total DIA travel expenses grew by one-third from 2011 to 2013, to $854,919. Machann described travel expenses for other city departments as stable in the last two years.
DIA’s flying habits differ significantly from most, though not all, of five large airports surveyed by The Denver Post. Their top officials traveled internationally less often and usually bought economy seats when they did.
At the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, “they all fly economy,” spokesman Reese McCranie said. “They never fly business. The airport does not pay for business class.”
Its general manager, chief financial officer and concessions manager traveled internationally twice last year.
On a recent flight this year, the airport’s general manager “was in the middle seat and he’s 6-foot-7, and he was coming back from Brazil,” McCranie said. “If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us.”
Unlike other city departments, DIA does not rely on taxes. Instead, it raises its revenues from airline, parking and concessions fees.
Top officials account for a large share of the airport’s total travel expenses. Day, Heck, Ackerman, chief of staff Eric Hiraga and Laura Jackson, whose job is developing DIA routes, were the airport’s most frequent fliers in 2012 and 2013, spending a total of $378,000, according to travel records requested and analyzed by The Post.
Travel expenses of 1,100 other city employees at the airport during that time totaled slightly more than $1 million.
Some trips also featured elegant lodging.
In London, Heck spent $934 for two nights at the Tower Grange, a new hotel near the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. It advertises five-star comfort, a luxurious health and fitness club, a 25-meter indoor swimming pool, a “stunning” spa and two artists in residence.
Heck said he received a discounted rate at the hotel where the conference was held and was unaware of its rating.
Airport managers view their international travels as an investment that has paid handsome returns.
Denver now has a direct flight to Tokyo, one of the cities its managers visited, as well as new flights to Iceland, Panama, Canada and Mexico.
Day said she and her lieutenants travel to learn what other international airports are doing, to raise Denver’s profile on the world map and to give expertise as international conference speakers.
“We speak at a lot of conferences, which is great exposure for us,” she said. “We’ve gone places where people say, ‘Denver?’ I’m not kidding. We’re not on the global stage yet.”
Heck serves on the Airports Council International world economics committee and was a panelist and speaker at its Singapore conference. At any international meeting, “we’re getting the Denver name out there,” he said.
Ackerman said DIA often gains innovative ideas for making money by visiting airports in Asia and Europe.
An internal DIA analysis concluded that new and additional international flights have reaped $14 million in airport revenues since Day took over in 2008. Airport officials also note that travel expenses amount to less than two-tenths of 1 percent of its budget.
At the same time, the airport has lost other international flights. Its total international passengers plummeted with the 2009 recession and have not yet recovered to 2008 levels.
Jeanne Faatz, a Denver City Council member who has questioned airport spending, said she understands the need to promote Denver as a destination for world travelers and investors.
She contends, however, that DIA does not need a lavish employee travel policy.
“They have lots of expenses out there. They have lots of debts out there,” she said. “Every penny saved is a penny earned.”
Some former airport officials expressed astonishment that DIA managers are traveling around the world in business-class seats when airport spending has drawn the attention of city auditors.
“Oh, my God, that is scary. I can’t believe that,” said Turner West, Day’s predecessor as airport manager.
West said he was especially surprised that the airport’s chief financial officer attended conferences in Europe, Africa and Asia. “The need for him to go overseas, I don’t have a clue,” he said. “Not a clue.”
During his tenure, West said he flew overseas once, on the inaugural flight from Munich to Denver, and Heck’s predecessor, Stan Koniz, did not leave the country on airport business.
Employees who did fly internationally bought economy-class tickets, he said.
“That was seven years ago,” Day responded. “The world has changed. The mission of the airport has changed.”
Business-class seats give airport employees the ability to sleep on long flights and room to work during a flight, she said.
“It’s really hard on us. They hit the ground running. It’s not leisure travel,” she said. “And we expect them to hit the ground running when they return.”
Since 2008, the regional economic benefit from DIA has grown from $22 billion to $26 billion, she said. “We are the number one economic engine in this state.”
Jeff Price, a professor of aviation and aerospace science at Metropolitan State University of Denver, agreed that personal visits by top managers help when an airport seeks international routes.
“Internationally, it still comes down to relationships,” he said. “They want to press the flesh. They want to shake someone’s hand. They want to know the people they’re going to spend money with.”
The airport’s business-travel policy was revised after then-Mayor John Hickenlooper appointed Day in 2008. DIA employees still fly economy class to Canada, Mexico and within the United States. Because they fly business class to other continents, many of those tickets cost $6,000 or more.
Ackerman paid $7,588 to attend a concession conference in Paris and $7,577 to reach a commercial summit in Shanghai.
Heck bought a $9,645 ticket to Abu Dhabi for a world route development forum.
Hiraga paid $9,698 for a Johannesburg flight to “market the Airport City Denver development concept.”
Day and Ackerman joined him, paying $9,366 and $8,337, respectively, for their flights. The conference, held at the Emperors Palace Hotel in Ekurhuleni, featured “aerotropolis” guru John Kasarda and Day among the speakers.
The aerotropolis concept, which envisions the 21st century city radiating from the nucleus of an airport, has been a priority of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who grew up in the airport district.
Business-class travel for DIA employees must be approved in advance by Day or her designee. The mayor’s chief of staff also approves international flights.
“To be a successful and competitive airport, travel is necessary,” said Amber Miller, Hancock’s press secretary. “The DIA travel policies are in line with the city’s policies, with more prescriptive guidelines since they travel considerably more frequently than all other city agencies.”
In two years, DIA’s top five fliers ventured on 50 international trips to 20 countries.
Some other large airports approve business-class tickets on long overseas flights. But only one of five surveyed by The Denver Post rivals DIA’s generosity: Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
There, the chief executive officer, concessions manager and chief financial officer, who also serves as air service development director, flew to 10 destinations around the world last year, including Budapest, London, Grand Cayman and Guangzhou. The airport pays for business-class tickets on international flights.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport also allows business class when total flight times exceed 14 hours or when its employees must perform official duties within 12 hours of arrival.
But no employee except its air service development manager flew internationally more than twice last year, and its finance and budget director didn’t travel abroad. All flights taken by its managing director of aviation and air service chief were economy class, the airport said, including trips to Switzerland, India, China, Uruguay and Israel.
San Francisco International Airport also pays for business- class seats on some international flights. In the last year, however, the director and concessions manager did not travel internationally. The chief financial officer flew to Tokyo, Seoul and London, a spokesman said, but the airport paid for business class only on the Tokyo flight.
At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, its acting aviation director flew across the border once last year, to Mexico. Its chief financial officer and concessions manager took no international trips. Airport officials fly economy class on overseas trips.
O’Hare International Airport in Chicago declined to answer questions about its employees’ international travels.
Some DIA flights specifically mentioned meetings with officials to discuss Denver as an international destination. Others were conferences, speaking engagements and, on 10 flights, preparing for and taking part in the inaugural Tokyo flight.
Sometimes, promoting Denver as a destination “may not be the sole purpose,” Day said. But “that’s something we try to do wherever we are.”
David Olinger: 303-954-1498, email@example.com or twitter.com/dolingerdp
DIA officials fly business class around the world