Frontier Airlines passengers in Denver would step on the tarmac to get on and off planes under a new plan that commits the carrier to DIA for another decade.

Denver International Airport has proposed $317 million in new concourse projects that include a big one aimed at keeping its third-largest carrier happy, with room to grow. DIA would spend $183 million to renovate and expand an existing ground-load facility used mostly by other airlines at the eastern end of Concourse A.

Denver-based Frontier, which now operates mostly out of nine traditional A gates with jet bridges, would get exclusive use and branding for all 14 gates in the expanded ground-load facility. Its move by early 2024 would open up more gates for other airlines, allowing DIA more flexibility to shuffle gate assignments.

While the move to ground loading would save Frontier money in the long run, its executives say the decision was more about efficiency. The new gates would allow quicker turnaround times between flights — cutting time by nearly half in some cases — because the airline could load and unload passengers at both the front and rear doors on a plane, via stairways or switch-backing ramps. Each gate would be able to process more planes per day.

“Anybody who travels internationally … within Europe, you’re going to see ground boarding just about everywhere, even for mainline aircraft,” said Jake Filene, senior vice president of Frontier’s customers division. “So for us, it makes a more efficient process and allows us to do what we’re all striving to do, which is to have our aircraft in the sky and not sitting on the ground.”

One downside for passengers is the long trek between the new gates and the center of Concourse A, with its connections to DIA’s terminal. They also will be more exposed to the elements while boarding.

But the proposal, set to receive its first Denver City Council hearing at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, answers a question that’s hung in the air through other recent gate expansions at DIA: What about Frontier?

United and Southwest airlines locked down all 39 new gates that will open by year’s end as part of $1.5 billion in recent expansions across all three concourses. United, which operates one of its largest connecting hubs at DIA, had the largest market share last year, at 44%, while Southwest came in second, at nearly 32%. Frontier, whose market share was 11%, maintains DIA as its second-largest base, behind Orlando International Airport.

The hometown airline is in the midst of a pending merger with Spirit Airlines, a fellow “ultra low-cost” airline with a largely complementary route network serving the Eastern United States and the Carribean. But that deal was challenged this week by a competing unsolicited bid by JetBlue Airways to buy Spirit.

Whatever happens is unlikely to affect its new plans in Denver, Frontier says.

“This is a commitment to Denver,” Filene said. “It’s a commitment to capacity growth in Denver and a new passenger experience in Denver.”

Frontier’s new facility, if approved by the City Council in coming weeks, would be 120,000 square feet, making use of two existing ground-load wings that extend eastward at ground level from the end of Concourse A. The project includes a 37,000-square-foot addition to a newer temporary facility built four years ago to provide nine gates for United while other gate additions were underway elsewhere.

The expanded facility would include support space and, between the gate wings, a new 8,000 square-foot maintenance facility.

To pay for the project, DIA plans to issue bonds repaid by its $4.50 passenger facility charge on each ticket. But Filene said Frontier’s new rent structure, which keeps its per-gate rate flat instead of decreasing them for the ground-load gates, will help DIA recoup the cost over the long term.

Frontier had leased 14 gates at DIA until it gave up six of them under a lease amendment in late 2015 that was aimed at saving money by consolidating its operation at DIA. More recently, as the airline and DIA assessed its needs, Frontier operated on a short-term lease.

The airline now serves about 80 destinations from Denver and says it needs the additional capacity.

“This agreement marks a new era for Frontier Airlines and Denver International Airport,” President and CEO Barry Biffle said in a statement provided by Frontier.

Other new projects proposed at DIA

Documents filed with a council committee ahead of Wednesday’s meeting outline $317 million in contract amendments with the prime contractors responsible for its Concourse Expansion Program. That program, originally $1.5 billion, was expanded to $2.1 billion in 2020 to add customizations for United and Southwest and refurbishments to older parts of the concourses.

Besides the ground-load expansion for Frontier, other new components proposed include pavement rehabilitation for apron areas at several original gates and a new taxiway to expand de-icing pad capacity.

They also include about $50 million in insurance-covered repairs to the gate expansion on the east end of Concourse B, where the rupture of a hot-water pipe in December caused extensive damage to the nearly complete addition.

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