AIRHEADS

"DIA baggage test scores big: no hits, no errors." After a week of watching luggage fly off computerized carts in inadvertent comedy routines that would do the Three Stooges proud, Mayor Wellington Webb surely dreams of such headlines. But that's precisely what the Rocky Mountain News pronounced as recently as January 18, 1994, in describing the first trials at Denver International Airport with "real luggage."
By now, the media are hauling around some real baggage of their own. If they'd done their jobs, if they'd done some actual reporting, someone might have figured out a little sooner that problems of disastrous proportions plagued the new airport.

There were certainly enough clues. In January Lance Ross, the editor of the independent Stapleton-based Innerline, reported that when BAE, the builder of the system, tested a mockup, it "ate the luggage, an incident witnessed by numerous airline representatives from Denver." And when Ross tried to ask Webb about the problems at a BAE briefing last fall, "I was told that my questions were inappropriate," he says. "It turns out it was the first time the mayor was even aware of the BAE malfunction."

That test had been conducted in Dallas, where BAE is based. But those "no error" trials were held at DIA. Had the media been interested, they could have reported the real results (as the late David Chandler did in his last Westword article): While the first United run lost only one of 32 suitcases, a Continental test on the same day ended when the motors burned out; the system jammed on United's second try.

Instead, the press has helped promulgate a three-tier level of knowledge regarding the project: What the public is allowed to know, what insiders (and all too often, that includes reporters assigned to the airport) can know, and what nobody apparently knows. It's too late for Webb to worry about "embarrassing Denver," one of the primary reasons now offered for the "indefinite" postponement of DIA's opening--it's embarrassing enough that the situation got so out of hand while Denverites watched.

They watched the load of DIA-concocted hype that the TV stations were all too happy to deliver. They watched this winter as TV anchors narrated promotional pieces that lauded the state-of-the-art computerized baggage system, pieces that included everything but the sad reality of the system's actual status; they watched as the stations aired specials touting the airport even as its March opening was pushed back to May--turns out that baggage system wasn't so state-of-the-art after all. They're greeted by Channel 9's Adele Arakawa on the DIA informational brochure available at a Burger King near you; if they're really lucky, maybe they'll get to see KCNC anchors Aimee Sporer and Bill Stuart on a DIA promo aired on United flights. Actually, Channel 4 wins special honors in the new airport's supporting player category (but then, station head Roger Ogden was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce when the new airport was a pet project of the then-depressed city's movers and shakers). Not content with being the positive voice of the new airport, the station actually became the voice at the new airport: Those are the dulcet tones of anchor Reynelda Muse that you hear on DIA's people-mover. And the station's airport reporter, Mike Fierberg, really went the distance--literally--for DIA: When aviation critic Mike Boyd appeared on Peter Boyles's show to discuss the controversial United "prepayment" that would help fund the March-to-May delay, Fierberg went over to the KTLK studio to set Boyd straight. By all reports, the confrontation was not a pretty sight--particularly when Boyd asked Fierberg why he was "whoring" for the mayor.

Webb says Fierberg and the News's Kevin Flynn are the only two reporters who really understand the airport deal. Flynn, too, has taken his shots at Boyd, one of the airport's earliest and most articulate critics. When the Associated Press quoted Boyd in a March 1993 article outlining financial risks at DIA, Flynn sent the AP a lengthy critique of the story, including the admonition that the reporter should have "done a little investigating into his source's background....I did some checking a few years ago and was unconvinced that the guy is as credible as he claims, and as your piece portrays him." When Boyd caught wind of the criticisms--outlined on News stationery--his lawyer fired off a "cease and desist" letter to the paper.

A pity these news outlets couldn't have expended more energy on reporting. In October 1990, for example, Breier Neidle Patrone had delivered a city-funded report on baggage handling options for DIA. "The evaluation concluded that both the Single Bag DCV System and the conveyor system are deficient in meeting the demands for application at the New Denver Airport," the consultants determined. DIA, of course, signed on for the single bag, designated coded vehicles concept--the now infamous BAE system. In fact, it had committed to such a system at least two years before, although the $193 million line item failed to appear in any DIA budgets until late 1991.

In making their recommendation of a multi-bag system for the A and B concourses and a traditional tug-and-cart for the C concourse, Breier et al. noted that the single-bag system was incapable of handling such odd-sized items as skis and golf clubs--common sights at a Colorado airport. More important, though, was the "high degree of development risk" for the single bag DCV. No one had attempted such a massive project before, and only one company in this country was even doing such work--BAE. "At this point the prototype tests are promising, but in no means are conclusive or representative of the complexity of a system which would be employed at DIA...," the consultants wrote. "We strongly feel it is not capable of being implemented within the project schedule."

Good advice--too bad the city and the media ignored the report. Instead, that bug-ridden system has bagged the airport.

Embarrassing, indeed.

 
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