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DIA doubles down on push for Africa flights, spends thousands on city trip

A delegation of city, airport and business leaders spent last week in Egypt and Ethiopia trying to convince a new airline to start service to Denver.

DENVER — The airport, city and a city councilmember's office spent more than $114,000 in public funds on a city delegation's trip to Egypt and Ethiopia last week, part of Denver International Airport's (DIA) efforts to attract a direct air link to North Africa. 

The delegation was made up of 21 people, including airport administrators, city leadership and local business leaders, a city spokesperson said. DIA said the delegation met with local political leaders in Addis Ababa and Cairo and representatives of airlines there to try to convince them to start flights to Denver. 

"Not everyone knows about our city unfortunately and all that it has to offer," said Alex Renteria, the airport's director of communications. "Just by building those relationships, we’re gaining an opportunity there and we’re opening a door that didn’t exist before. However, it could take decades."

DIA doubled down on its efforts to attract an African route. In addition to last week's delegation, it offered up to $8 million in incentives for airlines to start multi-weekly service to the continent. DIA does not have any flights to South America, but offered $5 million in incentives for new services there. 

"There is a business case for Africa," Renteria said. She pointed to Denver's large Ethiopian population as a draw for leisure travel and Africa's economic growth as an opportunity for business travel.

But she said demand on its own is likely not enough to attract a new airline and said the airport believes the delegation can help build goodwill that bridges the financial gap. 

"It’s important that Denver shows up when sometimes we aren’t as strong as other markets in demand," Renteria said. 

Ethiopian Airlines, one of the largest carriers in Africa, recently announced a new, direct route from Addis Ababa to Atlanta. The Atlanta airport said it did not offer any financial incentives for the new service, nor did it send a delegation to Ethiopia.

"We had conversations with Ethiopian Airlines at air service development conferences like World Routes and hosted a delegation at ATL," Rebecca Francosky, Atlanta's director of air service development, said in an email. 

DIA spent $88,521.50 on last week's delegation, city director of communications Mike Strott said. The DIA money comes from landing fees, parking and car rental charges, for example, he said. He said city taxpayers kicked in $19,040.06, for a total trip cost of $107,567.56. Strott said that amount covered the city and airport employees on the trip, but the city did not pay for business leaders to join the delegation.

The chief of staff for Councilmember Chris Herndon also made the trip. Amanda Steffan said she used $7,684 of Council District 8 funds to be a part of the delegation. "Part of the strength of our delegation was its size and diversity," she said in an email. "Having the councilman send a representative even though he couldn't make it helped demonstrate how serious we are about pursuing these direct routes."

In addition to Steffan, Mayor Michael Hancock and DIA CEO Phil Washington, Strott said members of the delegation included: 

  • Alan Salazar, Hancock's Chief of Staff
  • Evan Dreyer, Hancock's Deputy Chief of Staff
  • Tracy Winchester, Hancock's Deputy Chief of Staff
  • Laura Jackson, VP for Air Service Development, DIA
  • Penny May, VP, DIA
  • Happy Haynes, Executive Director, Parks & Recreation
  • J. J. Ament, President & CEO, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce
  • Albus Brooks, VP, Business Development & Public Affairs, Milender White
  • Andrew Feinstein, CEO & Managing Partner, EXDO Group Companies
  • Yemane Gebre-Michael, Strategic Alliances & Global Partnerships, CSG
  • Mowa Haile, President, Sky Blue Builders
  • Muluye Hailemariam, Owner, Kabod Coffee
  • Sandi Moilanen, VP of Operations, World Trade Center Denver
  • Richard Scharf, President & CEO, Visit Denver
  • George Sparks, President & CEO, Denver Museum of Nature & Science
  • Wayne Vaden, Managing Attorney, City Park Law Group, LLC

Two city security guards also made the trip, Strott said. A representative for the Museum of Nature and Science said George Sparks' trip was paid for by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. A chamber spokesperson said she would check to confirm whether the organization paid for others to take part in the trip.

"It could take decades," Renteria warned. But she said the development of relationships through the delegation will help make direct service from Denver to Africa more likely in the future.

"Tokyo is a really good example of that," she said, recalling a years-long effort to lobby for a flight to Japan. "We now have a flight to Toyko, we didn't before."



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