Off Limits

Submitted for your approval: A train stuck in an underground tunnel. An air of creeping claustrophobia. Panicked passengers find it difficult to breathe. A woman screams. A man offers his left arm for a fresh pair of Depends. And the hypnotic, pre-recorded voice of Reynelda Muse repeats an eerie message:

"Please hold on. This train is leaving for...hell."
The city was lucky that nobody ripped out the audio feed to the DIA trains with their bare hands last Sunday--or strangled any airport employees. After all, there's nothing like being stuck in a dark place where the power's been turned off and the emergency exits don't open to bring out the worst in some people. And as Mayor Wellington Webb so diplomatically noted that night in a TV interview, there are some selfish sorts who just seem to take pleasure in gloating over other peoples' screwups.

Especially Webb's.
The mayor, who only days before was cockily blasting the Colorado's congressional delegation's failure to fight harder for a British Airways flight from DIA to London, later issued a formal apology for the city's boneheaded handling of what could easily have turned into a life-threatening catastrophe. But in the wake of Sunday's mechanical meltdown, Hizzoner clearly remains as thin-skinned about DIA criticism as he's always been. Perhaps it was his quit-yer-bitchin' example that inspired the airport's crack control-room staff not to answer calls from panicked passengers calling from the emergency phones inside the train tunnel. The city's explanation? Hey, the dudes were busy--and it's not like there was a fire or anything. Besides, if it's reassurance you want, the airport's PR shamans have since responded with plenty of soothing words after the fact.

"If you look across the country and see any other airport in the country, it's hard to say there's a better airport in the country than DIA," says Webb spokesman Andrew Hudson. "Of course, I know how you'll twist that."

Even better than Hudson's comforting thoughts, though, was Sunday's claim from airport spokesman Chuck "Loose" Cannon that DIA's shuttle-bus-on-the-tarmac backup plan worked just fine--an assertion that chaps the hide of one of the travelers stuffed inside the hastily assembled fleet of diesel rickshaws.

"When we got to Concourse A, they stopped and opened the doors," recalls one woman who flew in from San Diego only to be stuck for more than three hours trying to get out of Concourse B. "Did anybody say, 'Everybody off'? Did anyone say, 'Go over there'? No. We were just supposed to figure out that we were supposed to go over there. There was not even the simple sort of non-courtesy you get from 16th Street Mall shuttle drivers. I felt like a salmon." Adds the accidental tourist, "It was obvious that the A team was not working Sunday morning."

Well, get used to it, bucko. Now that Webb has announced his farsighted plan to avoid hiring an actual aviation director for at least the next fourteen months, it's clear that the junior varsity will be in charge for some time out at the world's most efficient (except for blizzards, fog, train malfunctions, shifting soil, leaky fountains, "security breaches" and the odd squirrel in the baggage system) airport.

The mayor's daring appointment of public works manager Bruce Baumgartner--last seen shoveling snow in Summit County--has already raised eyebrows in the aviation community. "What DIA really needs is a professional airport manager, and Webb has put his little political friends in there to run it," says Evergreen aviation consultant Mike Boyd. "This is what they do in Turkmenistan or something--El Presidente puts in his little political hacks. Baumgartner's there as a political commissar to make sure no harm's done to Webb's political aspirations. That's an outrage."

Speaking of which, whatever happened to the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't talk about importing Atlanta airport boss Angela Gittens to replace the outgoing Jim DeLong, who's getting the hell out of Dodge to take a new post in the aviation mecca of Louisville, Kentucky? As an African-American woman with plenty of hands-on experience, Gittens appeared to be an easy political fix for Webb. "I assumed since it was a black woman, the mayor would be very interested in her candidacy," says city councilman Ted Hackworth. Gittens's no-nonsense style, however, might be a difficult fit in the Denver system, where politics has long taken precedence over pragmatism, leading to such memorable projects as Webb crony Wilma Taylor's as-yet-unsuccessful program to install a herd of buffalo in the fields adjoining Pena Boulevard. Gittens has been praised for cleaning up the awarding of concessions contracts at the Atlanta airport, where her predecessor was convicted of 130 counts of accepting bribes, mail fraud and tax evasion. She also made waves in Georgia by insisting on an employment contract that kept her safe from the mayor's political meddling.

But close on the heels of the rumors that she might be heading for Denver, Gittens was unceremoniously ousted from her job by Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell last Thursday. The mayor, who was accused of taking a bribe during an investigation of the Atlanta airport but was never indicted, said Gittens had done a "commendable job" but suggested that her replacement, Benjamin DeCosta from Newark, was better suited for the airport's massive expansion program. Gittens, who's slated to remain on the job in Atlanta until June 1, says newspaper reporters are the only ones who've contacted her about a possible move to DIA, and when asked about her future plans, says only that she's "reviewing her options." Boyd, meanwhile, says the aviation industry is waiting to get the real story behind her departure. "She was basically canned," he says. "You don't do that unless something's going on."

Either way, with Gittens apparently out of the picture, the latest party line from Webb is that it doesn't make any sense to hire a new aviation boss until after the May 1999 mayoral election--which seems to mean that Baumgartner and the mayor's handpicked crisis team of Stephanie Foote, Lee Marable and Wayne Cauthen will manage by consensus for the next fourteen months. The team's first order of business likely will be to polish DIA's reputation, which DeLong has already tried to salvage by noting that the airport's underground train works 99.7 percent of the time--sort of like touting a pacemaker by noting that it almost always works.

Already there are reports--vigorously denied by Hudson--that Webb administration bigwigs are sweating bullets over whether Sunday's snafu will queer the city's bid for the Democratic National Convention in the year 2000. The administration will also have to explain the decision to save money by building the train tunnels without a back-up method of getting passengers from the terminal to the concourses--while ignoring warnings from skeptics and simultaneously spending $600 million on a lemon of an automated baggage system. "To try and make us believe that from the beginning they knew the train would be sufficient is insulting," says Boyd. "People in the business knew that was a bad design not to have an alternative to that passenger artery."

One group of frequent flyers who might be hard to sell on DIA's efficiency are the civic leaders from Nashville who flew into Denver last weekend for a red-carpet tour, only to be marooned on Concourse B along with thousands of other travelers when the trains went kerblooey. Among the chamber-of-commerce types who got stranded: General William Moore, a former World War II bomber pilot who now runs the Nashville Airport Authority. Witnesses say Moore and the other Nashvillians took the snafu in stride, in part because they were being shepherded by a local tour guide who buzzed around with a clipboard, running interference for them with DIA officials and apparently managing to get them on board an early bus out of the airport. No word on what was said when the Tennessee contingent met later that night with Mayor Webb as the official kickoff to their tour of Denver--or what horror stories they may pass along to their fellow civic poobahs across the country.

What is known: the interim solution proposed by airport bosses in Tuesday's airport-committee meeting at the city council. That brilliant plan? To make an emergency purchase of bullhorns and orange vests so that in future DIA crises, crowds will at least be able to identify authority figures--and be able to hear what they're saying. "I guess it would be better to have people that can be easily identified by an angry crowd," muses Councilman Hackworth. "Of course, they might get hung.

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