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Off Limits

Pull out! Pull out!: Gosh, is Western Pacific Airlines, that beacon of fiscal brilliance that was supposed to save Denver from big, bad United, really crashing and burning in bankruptcy court? Who could have predicted it? Just because the airline was already losing money hand over fist by the time it limped into Denver last summer amid a bizarre publicity blitz that included talk of a possible $5.5 million subsidy from the city? Just because it ran up more than $6 million in overdue landing and gate fees at DIA before running to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Sidney Brooks for protection? Just because the whole show was being run by Smilin' Bob Peiser, a silver-tongued optimist who had the bright idea of slashing prices and adding flights at a time when his company was already having trouble making the payments on its complimentary pretzels?

Two months ago Evergreen aviation consultant Mike Boyd--known out at DIA as the Prophet of Doom--said it was "a mathematical certainty that this sucker's going down." In fact, Boyd forecast Westpac's downfall soon after Smilin' Bob brought the airline to Denver from Colorado Springs last summer. Today Boyd isn't bragging--the employees of the airline, after all, are the ones who'll pay the most dearly for its collapse. But he has a few choice words for Smilin' Bob, whose last-minute lap dance for would-be savior Smith Management Company of New York led only to a few more dead presidents--$23 million at last count--being stuffed into his fanny pack before he bottomed out. "He did it to himself," says Boyd. "Peiser just jumped off the building and thought he could fly."

Westpac's weird ghost dance also provides additional proof--as if any more is needed--that Denver is becoming the nation's Valhalla for discount air carriers. "This is another cross in the DIA graveyard," says Boyd. "We've had two start-up airlines [Westpac and MarkAir] go under; Reno Air left town due to the costs; and three regional carriers [GP Express, Maverick and Mountain Air Express] went bankrupt here." Meanwhile, consider this: All that growth at DIA that you read about last month was fueled largely by Westpac's suicide fares--below-cost offers that benefited a few lucky travelers and provided Peiser with ready cash but which ultimately hastened the company's demise.

Don't expect to hear Smilin' Bob fess up to having misjudged the Denver marketplace, however. "This is a management that never admits it made a mistake," says Boyd. "They'll probably come out and blame unfair competition from United. The truth is, Westpac was working too hard to put itself out of business. United couldn't even get a bead on them." And the really sad part? You can't even call up Smilin' Bob to hear his latest spin on the situation. The phone line he used to deliver his famously peppy words of wisdom to Westpac workers and other sorry souls has been disconnected.

Just hop on the bus, Gus: The Westpac debacle isn't the only thing occupying the minds of DIA officials these days. Having now been open for business for a whole two years and eleven months, airport managers have already decided they need a new parking garage, a new hotel, a new toll plaza, a new Air Train and a new runway long enough for nonstop space flights to Jupiter (or 747s to Tokyo, whichever come first). So what else is new? How about the way you go about renting a car out at everybody's favorite all-weather--except for fog and really big blizzards--landing field?

According to a new plan concocted by DIA bigwigs and the rental-car agencies that serve the airport, by the end of 1998 customers will no longer be able to perform their rent-a-car transactions at those handy counters in the terminal. Rental fees are projected to dip slightly under the new system, but in exchange for the savings, anyone in search of wheels will have to catch a bus for the companies' remote facilities before coming into contact with someone who can actually rent them a vehicle. That's because airport boss Jim DeLong is tired of the long lines that result when banks of flights all arrive at the same time, sending throngs of renters into the terminal at once and leading to inefficiencies at what's been touted as the world's most efficient airport. So after roughly three months of behind-the-scenes negotiations--which reportedly included a few heated missives from the rental-agency camp--Hertz, Avis and the rest say they'll pack up and move their service counters to their outlying satellite lots.

Although the companies plan to maintain skeleton crews in terminal information booths, the new arrangement will make it difficult for prospective renters to comparison-shop before they hop the bus to the car lot. So is this really progress? "I think it's a very positive thing," says Robb Madgett, vice president of airport relations for rental giant Hertz, which has served as the industry's representative on the DIA issue. And no wonder. Not only do the rental agencies get to consolidate their operations, they also apparently have won approval to tack on another $13 million or so to the special-purpose revenue bonds that were used to build their DIA facilities in the first place. According to Madgett, that will allow them to build canopies over the pickup lanes on Level 5 of the terminal--where travelers catch the buses to the satellite lots--and perhaps add a couple of new lanes to that ramp as well.

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