It's Friday afternoon, one of the busiest times for any airport. But at Denver International Airport's Concourse A, the throngs of business travelers who should be celebrating the end of a long week are nowhere to be seen. The hallways are mostly empty, only two airplanes are parked at the 22 gates, and at Lefty's Colorado Trail Grille, only one customer is sitting at the bar. "The people who travel through this concourse call it the morgue," he says with a rueful smile.

For bartenders, travelers and airport officials alike, Concourse A has become a virtual purgatory. Unfortunately, their dream of a fleet of jets parked on the now-empty tarmac is bedeviled by a hulking pile of metal 100 feet below the perpetually shiny floors: the infamous BAE automated baggage system.

The gremlin-plagued BAE system has been largely out of sight and out of mind since DIA's opening last February. But the state-of-the-art engineering feat, designed to zip bags to and from airliners using a complex system of bar codes and computer-operated carts, remains the $593 million question at the new airport.

The city shelled out $232 million to build the BAE system and incurred another $361 million in interest charges when problems with the byzantine underground network delayed the airport's opening by more than a year. And now DIA officials are preparing to issue another $100 million in bonds--with $6 million earmarked for an "interface" between the hemorrhaging BAE system and the traditional tugs and carts that actually deliver most of the airport's luggage. The city is also spending millions of dollars in legal fees to fend off lawsuits from private bondholders and a probe by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, whose regional office recently recommended the city be sanctioned for fraudulently withholding information about baggage-system snafus.

Meanwhile, seven months after the city opened DIA, the gleaming new baggage system on Concourse A still doesn't work. If the airlines that fly out of A have their way, it never will. Those carriers will likely never use the system BAE installed. But beginning November 15, they'll have to start paying for the idle machinery in the basement anyway--to the tune of $8 million per year.

Over on Concourse B, where United Airlines is rapidly establishing a fortress hub, BAE's system works only about 80 percent of the time--and then in just one direction. "Only a small percentage of the system works," says one DIA contractor who's still doing business with the city. "And it's not working well." That's the airline's problem now--the city last year gave up trying to sort out the mess and signed a deal that puts United in charge of haggling with BAE.

And out on Concourse C, where BAE ripped up a brand-new baggage system in a desperate attempt to get the B system running, airlines say they're content with the tug-and-cart system the city installed to get DIA up and running--and don't ever want the automated system put back in.

The city and BAE were the butt of innumerable jokes as they missed deadline after deadline in the struggle to get the new airport open. And the laughs have kept on coming.

So far this year, BAE, the Dallas-based subsidiary of Britain's BTR conglomerate, has already blown two more deadlines: a July date to have its system working properly on Concourse B and a similar August deadline on Concourse A. The company's efforts to get United's system on Concourse B up to speed have been so haphazard that the airline has given up on setting a deadline, deciding to simply let BAE keep trying until it can get it right. And the higher costs the BAE system has brought to Concourse A also have scared away potential carriers, despite the city's increasingly frantic efforts to lure airlines to what was supposed to be DIA's crown jewel. Those efforts reached an absurd peak last month when Denver unsuccessfully tried to convince DIA carriers to subsidize a move to A by MarkAir, a bankrupt company that recently lost one of its six planes when a leasing company repossessed it.

Today David Letterman no longer fires nightly barbs at the botched BAE system, and the Denver media have discontinued their deathwatch on the stillborn technological marvel. But the best joke of all may have been saved for last: Many of the people who helped build DIA now believe the BAE system will never--ever--work as it was intended.

"The industry doesn't believe the BAE system will ever work," says one engineer who worked as a consultant on the baggage system. "The city may have to throw in the towel and tear out the whole thing."

The makings of BAE's Denver baggage system had a little to do with engineering--and everything to do with politics.

The project had its roots in former mayor Federico Pena's decision to give Continental Airlines a bonus for being the first major airline to sign on to DIA. Pena rewarded Continental with prime space on Concourse A, a concession that later backfired when the airline turned tail and ran, pulling most of its flights out of Denver before DIA even opened.

At the time, however, United was angry that Continental would get the gates closest to DIA's main terminal and decided to ask for a concession of its own: a space-age baggage system that would allow it to funnel passengers in and out of Concourse B at lightning speed. When other airlines squawked that they were being left out, the city had little choice but to extend the automated system throughout the airport.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help