How Phil Washington is driving Colorado’s primary $36 billion economic engine

BY Preta Peace Namasaba January 26, 2024 8:06 PM EDT
Phil Washington. Photo credit: Denver International Airpot

Phil Washington is the CEO of Denver International Airport, the second-largest airport in the world by land size. The airport generates over $36 billion for the region and is the primary economic engine for the state of Colorado. It employs an estimated 40,000 people.

Washington grew up in apartments with asbestos in the projects of Chicago’s South Side. He was raised by a single mother and had to grow up fast. The flawed facilities that surrounded his childhood motivated Washington to later change similar systems. He decided to enlist for the army when he was expelled from high school at 17.

He served in the army for 25 years having risen to Command Sergeant Major, the highest non-commissioned officer rank.. Washington is a disabled veteran and was awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal for his service. During his military career, he earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree at Columbia College Chicago and a Master of Management from Webster University.

The military taught Washington various tactical and leadership skills. He learned to value diversity of opinion in decision making to execute good management choices. He transferred these skills to the corporate world where he has since excelled at leadership. Washington became assistant general manager position at Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) in 2000.

“You can ask anyone that’s been in the military for a significant amount of time, and the biggest concern will be, “Are my skills transferrable to the civilian sector?” I was concerned about that, too. So the transferrable thing is leadership. That’s what you bring to a different industry,” Washington said about how his military career has influenced his leadership.

Nearly 10 years later, Washington took over as CEO of the Denver Regional Transportation District. He led the implementation of the FasTracks program, one of the largest voter-approved transportation expansion programs in the United States. He completed the Denver West Corridor Rail Line project under budget and eight months early and the award-winning and highly lucrative Denver Union Station project five months. Washington also led the implementation of country’s first and still only operating $2.2 billion rail transit public private partnership (P3).

He then served as CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro). Washington managed an $8.5 billion budget and was responsible for approximately $20 billion in capital projects. The agency employed 11,000 people, transported 1.2 million boarding passengers daily on a fleet of 2,200 clean-air buses and six rail lines. He led the successful passing of Measure M, a new half- cent sales tax with majority support allowing Metro to build 40 major highway and transit projects over the next 40 years. It is projected to create 778,000 jobs and generate $133.3 billion.

Washington became the CEO of Denver International Airport in 2021 following a nomination by the city mayor. The airport has 37,000 total badged employees with 25 air carriers and over 185 total concessions. He oversees one of the largest networks with more than 215 nonstop destinations, 26 international destinations and 24 airlines. It is a major economic engine for the Rocky Mountain region, contributing over $36 billon to the Colorado economy.

Washington plans on making the airport one of the world’s greatest.
“We have projections that say we will be at 120 million travelers going through this airport by that time — in an airport that was designed for 50 million. What that means is we need to start thinking about additional concourses. We have the ability to build 11 additional gates on the C concourse, and once we do that, we are tapped out with the existing concourses. It’s my job to improve as best we can. This will be one of the greatest airports in the world when we’re done.”

Through the $10 billion dollar Capital Improvement Program that he manages, Washington has revamped Denver International Airport. He instituted Vision 100 to prepare the airport to accommodate 100 million passengers by 2030. This includes retrofitting the airport to accommodate 50 million more passengers than it was originally designed for, a large 15,000 space consolidated rental car facility, an automated passenger mover and pre-environmental work on a 7th runway, among others. Washington has also introduced the Center of Equity & Excellence in Aviation program that introduces young people to the aviation industry and creates career pathways for them.

Last year, Washington was inducted into the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Hall of Fame in recognition of his leadership. He was picked by President Joe Biden to lead the Federal Aviation Administration but withdraw his name. Washington is also a member of the Advisory Committee on Transportation Equity.