WHO'S HOLDING THE BAG?

In the January 8 New Yorker, satirist Christopher Buckley sums up 1996 with a series of hypothetical headlines:

"Colorado Militia Blows Up New Denver Airport," reads one.
"Denver Airport Bombers Are Given Ticker-Tape Parade Through Downtown: Mayor Hails `Heroes' and Presents Them With Keys to Old Airport," reads the next.

Yes, once again the rest of the country is having a good yuk at Denver's expense. At Denver's $5 billion expense.

Here's another headline: "DIA Bags Rolling at Last." Oops. That's not from the New Yorker--it's an actual front-page tease from the October 28, 1995, Rocky Mountain News, which went on to note, "United finally using all of automated system."

Go ahead and laugh.
Just three days before that headline appeared, Westword had reported that Denver International Airport's automated system worked only 80 percent of the time--and then in only one direction. And that, of course, wasn't the entire state-of-the-art, "fully integrated" automated system originally envisioned, a revolutionary computerized setup that would whisk bags back and forth between three concourses at record speeds and efficiency. No, it was a $218 million, stripped-down version. After blaming over a year's delays (and $361 million in additional interest charges) on BAE's snafus in constructing the system, the city essentially surrendered in August 1994. As a result, the automated links to Concourse A were put on hold and the connections to Concourse C erased altogether--cannibalized to create the automated track between United's home on Concourse B and the terminal. United even volunteered to shoulder the burden of making sure BAE got the system running.

The city shed that responsibility with all the eagerness of an inmate granted full pardon.

Even now, as DIA's one-year anniversary approaches and BAE continues to miss deadline after deadline (the completion date has now been pushed back to the end of the month), city officials remain more than willing to let United take the responsibility--and the heat--for the baggage system.

But if you stand too close to the fire, you're likely to get singed.
And the city got roasted last week. The fire alarm first sounded Thursday on Peter Boyles's KTLK talk show, when listeners kept calling to complain that their bags had been lost--or worse, eaten--at DIA a few days before Christmas. One of Boyles's sources told the radio host that the automated baggage system was behaving so badly that United had shut it down altogether and was back to using the old-fashioned tug-and-cart method that airport planners had said would never work at DIA.

Following that lead, Associated Press reporter Steven Paulson tracked down Laurie Cant, BAE's spokesman. "Inbound bags have not been taken into the system since December 22, 1995, due to a computer malfunction," Cant confirmed. While Cant said BAE had corrected the problem, United's spokesman was less optimistic--and more colorful. United wouldn't use the inbound system again until "we figure out how to get the bugs worked out," Tony Molinaro said. "Bins were going to the wrong spot; bags were in the wrong areas."

Not that you'd know that from reading Denver's two dailies, neither of which printed the AP story. The Rocky Mountain News ran its own piece Friday, which disputed Boyles's body-bag count at the same time it failed to mention the Boyles show that had created all the sparks. And while the Denver Post has done admirable work on DIA's faulty radar system (the city didn't know much about that, either), the baggage problem was apparently off its screen; so far, the only Post writer to touch the topic is columnist Chuck Green, who went to the airport after hearing Boyles's show and tracked down aviation director Jim DeLong. DeLong told Green that he didn't know if the baggage system was working, then added that he couldn't go into the area, because it was "secured."

Secured from what? The man who is supposed to run Denver's airport? Baggage handlers chuckled at that. But this disavowal of responsibility is getting less funny all the time.

"We can't comment on what is United's responsibility," Andrew Hudson, Mayor Wellington Webb's press secretary, said on Boyles's show Friday. Green, too, ventured onto the airwaves that morning, where much of the debate focused on just how many bags had been destroyed. (United released a statement the same day noting that "this holiday season has been normal in terms of damaged bags.") Before Boyles signed off, Webb himself joined the fray. The insults and accusations were flying faster than those errant suitcases in the early films of BAE test runs. Like DeLong, Webb said he simply didn't know the status of the baggage system.

When it comes to DIA, taking responsibility just isn't their bag. Apparently Delong and company would rather know nothing than know the worst--that the baggage system may never run as it is supposed to.

The planned extension to Concourse A is "still in limbo," according to Hudson. The city is having discussions with Continental as to whether to bring it on line, but there's no reason to think Denver's incredibly shrinking airline will commit to a baggage system that other airlines would like to see pack it in.

United had said that it would decide on Monday when--and whether--it would return the inbound portion of the automated system to duty. At DIA's public-information office, workers didn't know what that decision would be, and they helpfully provided the name of United's local public-relations firm (which is not, contrary to what you might think, the Rocky Mountain News).

Wouldn't United inform the airport office when it made such a decision? Not necessarily, replied DIA spokesman Chuck Cannon. "As long as their bags are moving, we don't care what system they're using."

But the public should. Because whether the final tally of lost bags is five, or fifty, or five hundred, something critical is still missing.

Accountability.

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