An Airport Divided

United Airlines and BAE get personal in a lawsuit over DIA's bungled baggage system.

The airline and the engineering company have both sought out the highest-priced legal talent in town for the battle. The powerhouse firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland is representing United, while BAE has retained the rival 17th Street firm of Davis Graham & Stubbs. Both United and BAE decline to comment on the upcoming trial.

Problems with the automated baggage system were largely responsible for delaying DIA's opening by more than a year. Those delays boosted the airport's final cost by $361 million; the city was forced to sell more bonds to cover interest costs as the spanking new airfield sat idle for months. To actually get the airport open, the city had to construct a $63 million tug-and-cart system much like the one it abandoned at Stapleton airport. That traditional system still serves all the carriers at DIA and moves most of the airport's luggage.

The BAE system, originally intended to serve the entire airport, now operates only in United's Concourse B and primarily moves outbound luggage for the Chicago-based carrier. The automated system installed on Concourse A is gathering dust, and the airlines using that wing of the airport say they're perfectly happy to let the octopus-like contraption lie dormant. Even so, the city is already forcing those carriers to help pay off the debt incurred in building the system.

In 1994 the city handed responsibility for the automated baggage system over to United, saying the carrier should supervise the system since it's the only user. Some observers speculate the city may have relished dumping the mess in United's lap, since it was the huge carrier that insisted Denver install an automated system in the first place. And this past March, United canceled BAE's contract to maintain the system, replacing it with Hensel Phelps Construction Company.

City officials, including airport boss DeLong, now refer all questions about the baggage system to United. An airline spokesman in Chicago failed to return phone calls seeking comment.

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