Off Limits

Happy Birthday, DIA!

Please fasten your seatbelts
It may seem like forever since former mayor Federico Peña's pet project finally debuted after one of the most agonizing waits in civic history, but Denver International Airport celebrates only its fifth anniversary next week. Over the years (both before and after DIA opened), there have been plenty of scandals, boondoggles and just plain stupid occurrences -- shady contracts, parking problems, faulty runways, wasted money, weather fiascoes and a dysfunctional underground train, to name a few (for one of the latest, see "Press Released," this page). But all of those snafus pale compared to the airport's troubles with its automated baggage system.

When aviation planners announced they were adopting this technological miracle for their airport of the future, it was big news -- and it was even bigger news when the airport's spring 1994 opening date was abandoned because the system was eating luggage ("Crash and Carry," January 26, 1994). Before it was all over, the $232 million system that was supposed to make the airport one of the wonders of the aviation world had crashed in a costly and embarrassing flop.

Airport officials soon found themselves cursing the day that Dallas-based BAE Automated Systems had shown up at the city's doorstep. The company, which was in charge of building the system, was unable to meet a series of deadlines, ultimately delaying the airport's much-anticipated opening by an excruciating sixteen months. In the meantime, Denver had to issue $361 million in new bonds just to cover the interest payments on the $4 billion airport, whose gleaming terminal and concourses sat empty, generating zero revenues for the city. In order to get the place open, Mayor Wellington Webb finally ordered the installation of an old-fashioned tug-and-cart system to run alongside BAE's contraption, and Denver handed over responsibility for running both systems to United Airlines.

Spit and paper clips: The original baggage system at DIA is now partially operational.
Anthony Camera
Spit and paper clips: The original baggage system at DIA is now partially operational.

But the soap opera wasn't over. BAE and United -- which described the system as an "engineering disaster" -- exchanged lawsuits; at one point, BAE claimed it couldn't get a fair trial in Denver because it was afraid it would be held out as a "scapegoat" for all of the airport's other problems. The case was eventually settled out of court.

Today United executives say they've turned their gigantic lemon into at least a small trickle of lemonade. "We look at it that way," says Harmond Helm, director of business systems development for United. Quietly, over the past two years, United has completely rebuilt -- or, rather, jury-rigged -- the infamous system using its own consultants and engineers, who have reconfigured its mechanical and software components. "We've done a significant amount of work on that system to the tune of quite a few million dollars," Helm says. "It's a considerably different system than when we took it over. It was traumatic for all of us, but now it's quite stable and running well."

The automated system serves only United's Concourse B, where it still carries just outbound luggage. Everything else is transported via the alternate, low-tech tugs and carts -- and that's the way it's likely to stay. Rather than expand the automated system to carry inbound bags, United's focusing on making the system transfer luggage between planes at Concourse B. And despite its ambitious expansion plans for Concourse A -- United claims it will increase its daily departures at DIA from 300 to 400 by 2002 -- the airline says it will not attempt to get the automated system running on that concourse.

Removing one 800-pound gorilla was enough.

It's a bird, it's a plane
No, it's definitely a bird. Over the years, wildlife stories of another kind have also made news at DIA. After all, it's only natural that if you plop a giant airport smack down in the middle of an eastern Colorado prairie -- rife with eagles, hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, rabbits, prairie dogs and other fuzzy and feathered creatures -- you will have run-ins with vermin. And while DIA has managed to win most of these battles, it has lost a few, too.

In August 1992, while the airport was still being built, construction of Peña Boulevard had to be halted for several months in order to let a family of burrowing owls nest and move on. While the construction company probably didn't give a hoot, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it a crime to disturb migrating birds, so crews had to work around the owls until they flew south for the winter.

In 1995, after DIA had finally opened, then-U.S. representative Pat Schroeder's Dodge Colt became infested with mice after it was mistaken for an abandoned car and towed to the airport's impound lot. The towing company agreed to pay for mouse cleaning.

In 1996, prior to our state's current prairie dog furor, DIA used a specially designed contraption to suck live prairie dogs out of the ground and place them elsewhere. The Dog-Gone machine went on to achieve international acclaim.

In 1997, the Federal Aviation Administration agreed to slightly alter the flight paths of planes taking off from DIA to allow bald eagles at the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal to roost without being disturbed. Two years earlier, many eagles had abandoned their traditional roosting grounds because the planes were so disruptive -- a violation of the Endangered Species Act, under which the eagles were protected.

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