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Even at 3:35 a.m. the cars on Peña Boulevard weave and speed toward Denver International Airport. Drivers mash their brake pedals and skitter toward the car in front of them, then slide into the parallel lane and press ahead, trying to cut down the minutes between themselves and their gates.
Despite traveling this stretch of Peña up to 10 hours per day, six days per week, Simon Ante never lets urgency affect him. Ante is an ABM shuttle driver who cycles people between two of DIA’s economy parking lots, Pikes Peak and Longs Peak, and the airport terminals. He takes refuge in the farthest right lane and delights in maintaining the 45 mph speed limit. “Pillar No. 1 is safety,” he said, pulling ABM’s driver principles from memory.
ABM is one of 1,100 tenants at DIA, companies with contracts to operate at the airport. According to the airport’s Vision 100 economic impact study, those tenant companies account for about 34,000 jobs. ABM is responsible for 600 of those jobs, 220 of which are dedicated to shuttle operations.
DIA is growing at a rapid pace, and traveler numbers are breaking record after record. This year started with the busiest half-year in the airport’s history, January to May, followed by the busiest month in the airport’s history in June, and an even busier month in July. By the end of this summer, DIA had already accommodated 6 million more passengers than the same time last year. And last year was the airport’s busiest ever.
But record passenger counts, expressed in full parking lots, crowded shuttles and long security lines, aren’t the only measure of rapid growth at the airport. DIA is already the largest employer in Colorado, employing more than 130,000 people in 2021. To meet its projection of 100 million passengers by 2032 — the assumption driving the airport’s Vision 100 plan — officials estimate they’ll need to more than double their workforce to 275,828 employees.
An Ethiopian enclave
LEFT: Simon Ante begins his work shift in an ABM service vehicle on Oct. 16. ABM service vehicles are passenger cars used to shuttle drivers from ABM’s base to passenger shuttles and also function as mobile offices for supervisors. RIGHT: From left, Bereket Megiso, Yosef Maru, and Shukri Mohammed watch a video about workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of their training at ABM Aviation on Oct. 25. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)
ABOVE: Simon Ante begins his work shift in an ABM service vehicle on Oct. 16, 2023. ABM service vehicles are passenger cars used to shuttle drivers from ABM’s base to passenger shuttles and also function as mobile offices for supervisors. BELOW: From left, Bereket Megiso, Yosef Maru, and Shukri Mohammed watch a video about workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of their training at ABM Aviation on Oct. 25. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Ante works the early morning shift, from 3:45 to 11:15 a.m. At this time of day it takes nine minutes to get his shuttle from the D4 pickup island to the DIA terminal — 10 minutes if there’s traffic.
What travelers experience as a merry-go-round motion of shuttles — dropping off, picking up, dropping off, picking up — is actually a tight choreography of routing that hinges on near-constant radio communication between drivers and shift supervisors scattered around 3 square miles of roads and parking lots.
At exactly 4 a.m., Ante parks an ABM service car at the Pikes Peak lot and walks to the D1 pickup island, where his co-worker Tafesse Getahun has a shuttle waiting. Both drivers immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia, Ante in 2014, Getahun in 2017. During their shuttle exchange they chat in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, while Ante runs his pen down a checklist on a clipboard. Mileage, number of people, lights, horn, windshield, air conditioning, radio, tires, bumper.
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It takes less than three minutes to run through the checklist, then Ante hands Getahun the keys to the service vehicle. “Charlie 2,” Ante said, dropping the keys in Getahun’s palm.
Getahun drives the ABM shuttle six days per week from 8:45 p.m. to 5:15 a.m. When he gets off work, he walks his husky, Blue, for about 30 minutes, and falls into eight hours of sleep. “Always eight hours,” Getahun said. “I am very energized at night.”
In Ethiopia, Getahun worked as an operations assistant for the United Nations migration agency. He coordinated buses and planes to transport refugees from neighboring countries, sometimes escorting them all the way to their new country. This work, he said, prepared him for the late nights and long shifts spent sitting at an airport.
Getahun visited the U.S. many times through this work, but it took 13 years for his own visa to be approved. When it was, he quit his job at the U.N. and moved to Colorado.
“Because I had the chance. It’s U.S.,” Getahun said, shrugging.
At 4:15 a.m., Ante had looped the shuttle through the parking lot and was at the last pickup island. He opened the doors and stood up. “Good morning, good morning, good morning,” he said smiling, greeting every passenger who stepped aboard. He noticed an older woman in line and asked to help her with her bag. Nine minutes later, he thanked each passenger as they exited. “Have a blessed day,” he told the ones who thanked him back.
“Because I had the chance. It’s U.S.”
— Simon Ante, ABM shuttle driver
If Ante wasn’t a shuttle driver, he’d either be a nurse or a minister. “To help and to serve those who are helpless, that’s my interest,” he said. He has read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation 28 times. In Ethiopia, he worked as a nurse and in public health for over 10 years. But his health care credentials didn’t carry over when he moved to the U.S.
The Ethiopian community in Colorado is heavily concentrated in Arapahoe County, just south of the airport, where more than half of the population resides, according to the 2020 census.
“We never were a colony, so our English is a little bit … it’s not ‘American way’ or ‘English way,’ so even though we are educated, we don’t get the professional jobs easily,” Ante said.
Samuel Gebre Michael, executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Ethiopian Community, said DIA is a good place for immigrants to start their careers in the U.S. because they can practice their English, and because of the sheer number of job openings. But many of these immigrants eventually leave to start their own businesses, Michael added, noting the Ethiopian community’s “strong entrepreneurial spirit.”
Surveillance from the sky
LEFT: Simon Ante on his shuttle route on Oct. 16. RIGHT: An ABM shuttle returns to ABM headquarters on Oct. 25. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)
ABOVE: Simon Ante on his shuttle route on Oct. 16. BELOW: An ABM shuttle returns to ABM headquarters on Oct. 25. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Ante appears genuinely happy to drive for ABM. He addresses his co-workers as one would close friends and family. Enthusiastic “Good mornings!” arrive through the radio as the shuttles pass one another on the roads.
“Good morning, Simon!” a woman’s voice announced over the radio. “She should have said ‘good morning, four-five-four,’ my bus number,” Ante said. “But we’re friends.”
The radio is constantly crackling with coordinates.
“Four-five-four, departing terminal.
“Four-five-four, arriving at Pikes Peak.
“Four-five-four, departing D4 Pikes Peak.”
Ante relayed his shuttle’s position every few minutes.
As the shuttle drivers dictate their coordinates and passenger counts, supervisors create tiny route adjustments based on traffic, passenger loads, shift changes and lunch times.
There are only two spaces for the shuttles to park at the terminal, so Ante radios when he’s approaching and watches the front bus pull away.
The drivers also signal to each other silently, like driving the route in reverse to communicate a shift change, or parking the shuttle on the east side of headquarters to signal that it needs fuel.
None of this should be obvious to passengers. ABM’s fifth pillar, Ante said, is “no hiccups in the system.”
Of course, “no hiccups in the system” is easier said than done in a system that shuttles over 7 million stressed, exhausted, scattered, excited or otherwise distracted passengers every year.
After each round of passengers, Ante walks the center aisle checking for trash and abandoned items. He keeps a collection of lost pens in his backpack. In April, Ante found $5,000 in a plastic bag left on a shuttle seat.
He immediately phoned a manager, and then counted it for the safety camera mounted at the front of the shuttle. The money was reported to the Denver Police Department, who turned it over to DIA lost and found.
“That guy had it rough, he lost $5,000, but I lost nothing. So I’m not tempted.” Ante said.
A couple of mornings later, Ante received a letter from the city of Denver commending his ethics and integrity. They gave him a mug and a pair of socks, which he hasn’t worn. “Five-thousand-dollar socks! I don’t want to wear them, I should keep them in a museum,” Ante joked. ABM rewarded Ante with $500.
“This camera is only on for eight hours during the shift,” he said, pointing at the same security camera he counted the money for. “But that one,” he said, moving his finger toward the sky, “That one stays 24/7 on me.”
The fun times
LEFT: From left, Seife Birhane, Tedla Fisseha, Yemane Reda and Daniel Gebretsdik pause for a portrait at ABM Aviation on Oct. 25. RIGHT: Marcia Nelson, director of operations for ABM Aviation, in her office on Oct. 16. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)
ABOVE: From left, Seife Birhane, Tedla Fisseha, Yemane Reda and Daniel Gebretsdik pause for a portrait at ABM Aviation on Oct. 25. BELOW: Marcia Nelson, director of operations for ABM Aviation, in her office on Oct. 16. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Anticipating “hiccups in the system” is Marcia Nelson’s specialty. Nelson is the director of operations for ABM’s Western airports, which includes airports in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Seattle. She’s wide-eyed and cheerful, even at 3:45 in the morning, even without coffee.
Nelson started as a cashier in DIA’s travel plaza when she was in high school. It was just a summer job. The plan was to go into the medical field, but she quickly found out that she couldn’t stand the smell of cauterized flesh. She fainted in the surgical room during her first encounter, and quickly returned to ABM, back to DIA.
With the exception of two-and-a-half years spent in Boise — it was supposed to be one year, but her first day was Sept. 11, 2001, and everything about the airline industry was rocked — her 22-year career with ABM has been spent making her way through the ranks at DIA.
“We can see it happening. Like, hmm, he has a suit on, but he’s also got the kids with him in flip-flops.”
— Marcia Nelson, ABM’s director of operations, on the changing nature of business travel
Nelson anticipates passenger demand using school calendars, TSA predictions and weather forecasts, and keeps track of who parks where at DIA.
After the 2008 recession, the number of cars parked in the airport garages plummeted, while the number of people parking in the economy shuttle lots — ABM’s territory — grew. The number of carpoolers also increased to four people per car.
These days, the average is 2.5 people per car, and the business travelers who once frequented the garages have turned into what Nelson called “bleisure” travelers, or people whose remote jobs allow them to mix business with leisure.
This has shifted the airport’s predictably busy days (Wednesday through Friday for business travelers) to a more elusive Wednesday through “maybe Friday, maybe Saturday, maybe Sunday,” according to Nelson. The bleisure travelers also tend to bring their spouse or families along. “We can see it happening. Like, hmm, he has a suit on, but he’s also got the kids with him in flip-flops.”
Summer travel is typically smooth with the exception of flight delays due to afternoon thunderstorms. Winter is when things get complicated.
When ABM knows a blizzard is about to hit Denver, the company parks a trailer behind the headquarters in case employees can’t safely return home. They stock the trailer with cots, mattresses and toothbrushes, and rent two rooms at the Westin for showers. They fill the break room with ramen, oatmeal, hot dogs and “all the frozen foods you can think of,” Nelson said. The longest Nelson has stayed at the airport was five days straight, during a blizzard in October 1997.
“So those are the fun times,” Nelson said with a smirk.
On really hectic travel days she’ll ride the shuttles and hand out little cards with bus stop locations, so that overstimulated passengers remember where they parked upon return.
Sometimes a blizzard coincides with the holidays, or a certain airline has a meltdown in the days leading up to Christmas. Each situation requires a quick, creative response, whether it’s pulling the snow plows off the runways to scrape the parking lots for an hour, or renting vans to carry passengers back to their cars.
“And this is just one little segment of the airport,” Nelson said. “It’s just a lot of synchronization.”
Nelson didn’t provide specifics about how airport administration works directly with ABM to ensure the company is ready for the anticipated growth, noting only that the shuttle service and the airport have had a 25-year partnership that has survived 9/11, the Great Recession and the pandemic, and that she’s confident ABM will grow right alongside DIA.
Staying in the right lane
Recently an arriving passenger missed Ante’s parking lot announcement and rode the shuttle all the way back to the terminal, chastising Ante for making her late to an appointment. The day before that, a traveler became so furious with the shuttle’s pace that he cursed at Ante until the man was delivered to a shuttle that could rush him to the terminal.
“If (the travelers) are in a good mood, it’s nothing. If they’re in a bad mood, it makes bad work. But as a driver, I understand,” Ante said.
Ante remained unfazed recalling his difficult encounters, smiling as he narrated each one. “Respect is global, you know, when you respect people they respect you back. And when they are mad, I just try to understand,” Ante said.
Then he tugged the sunshade down to protect his eyes from the low, eastern sunrise and settled the shuttle into the right lane of Peña Boulevard. “All the way, right lane,” he said, smoothly accelerating to 45 mph.