Flights of Fancy

Denver pays a consultant big money to get overseas flights for DIA--and goes nowhere.

The sky was the limit for Denver aviation officials hoping to lure overseas air service to the city back in 1987. According to a "forecast summary" prepared that year by the consulting firm of Simat, Helliesen & Eichner, the Mile High City could soon expect to have an aerial armada of jumbo jets ferrying passengers to and from distant shores. By 1993, the Massachusetts consultants predicted, Denver would be able to support 57 flights per week to destinations outside North America.

The rose-colored projections offered up by SH&E were received so eagerly by city officials and business leaders promoting the nascent Denver International Airport that the city printed a brochure touting Denver as an international gateway on the plains. With the opening of DIA, it prophesied, Denver, conveniently perched midway between Europe and the Orient, stood to become a cosmopolitan crossroads.

Today, Denver is still waiting for its airships to come in. The number of overseas flights leaving from DIA each week isn't 57. It hasn't even reached 41, the number of weekly flights that same SH&E study predicted Denver could support as far back as 1988. Instead, the number of regularly scheduled airliners lifting off to distant shores each week is zero. Continental shut down the city's lone regularly scheduled overseas run, a once-a-week London hop, when it hightailed it out of town in the wake of DIA's opening. DIA does play host to a lonely Dutch charter airplane that flies in from Amsterdam once a week for ten months out of the year, but for the general public, the international itinerary is blank--which means Denver has fewer overseas flights than it did in 1987, when Denver hired SH&E specifically to drum up such traffic.

The consulting firm hasn't come close to realizing its vision of Denver as an international mecca. But SH&E is still on the payroll, its contract having been extended no fewer than six times since it was first signed in 1987. The company has collected nearly half a million dollars during its nine-year stint with Denver and stands to collect much more. Even though the city has its own full-time employee working on luring international flights, Denver aviation officials say they have grown dependent on the firm's expertise--so much so that in 1994, aviation director Jim DeLong flew an SH&E executive to Denver to help him interview applicants for a vacant deputy manager's position. A contract administrator put the kibosh on that $4,000 expenditure. But the firm had better luck last year, when the city gave it a new contract that commits another $175,000 to its efforts to woo carriers.

Leslie Madsen, the employee Denver already pays $60,000 per year to help attract international service, says it's important to have SH&E "by my side. When you work with airline executives on a consistent basis, it's the difference between making courtesy visits and being able to hand them relevant information in an airline format."

So far, though, it's hard to tell where SH&E has made a difference on overseas flights. The firm's Denver project director, Deborah Meehan, failed to return repeated phone calls. But in documents submitted to the city, the company, founded in 1963 by a former chief economist for the now-defunct Civil Aeronautics Board, describes itself as an authority on nearly all facets of modern aviation. It maintains a database it says is "unmatched in the industry"--and it bills accordingly. The firm's rates have risen from $87 per hour for its top executives in 1987 to a lawyer-like $189 per hour today. However, the intricate charts, cost-benefit analyses and glossy brochures it has prepared on Denver's tab so far have failed to pay off. Even as Denver was signing its new contract with the firm, the city was stung with bad news on the two main fronts where it has asked SH&E to concentrate its firepower: England and Germany.

Last year Denver paid SH&E roughly $10,000 to prepare a sleek sales pitch for British Airways--a document that came complete with pie charts and glowing accounts of Denver's boomtown economy and was hand-delivered to the English giant's London offices in October 1995. But the dominant British carrier has shown little interest in serving DIA. The month before it received the report from Denver, British Airways had announced plans to add a daily London round trip to Phoenix, a city only ninety minutes from DIA by air and long Denver's arch-competitor for overseas service. And earlier that year, the airline actually transferred a U.S. route it was authorized to fly into Denver to Tampa, Florida. "I think they just saw more use [for the route] in Tampa at that point," concedes Denver deputy aviation director Diane Koller, an SH&E supporter.

And while Denver has pleaded its case for years before officials at German powerhouse Lufthansa, Phoenix recently added insult to injury by landing its own nonstop Germany service. Beginning November 4, that city's Sky Harbor International Airport will offer once-weekly service to DYsseldorf by LTU International Airways, Germany's second-largest carrier.

Ultimately, the decisions by British Air and LTU to bypass Denver had more to do with economics than they did with public relations. "I know that in general, landing fees are a factor for most carriers," says Sky Harbor public information officer Joan McHenry, "and my understanding is it's very, very expensive for an air carrier to land in Denver."

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