Life in the Slow Lane

Welcome to Denver International Scareport, always ready for takeoff.

Andrew Hudson, press secretary for Mayor Wellington Webb, breezed through Denver International Airport security on Tuesday morning -- but then, he'd arrived at the airport at 5 a.m., five hours before his scheduled flight. It would be the first time he'd flown out of DIA since the September 11 terrorist attacks, and he was ready.

Not to fight hijackers, but to survive the wait.

"Let's roll," said one courageous Flight 93 passenger as he took on the terrorists.

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"Let's stroll," DIA's inaction told travelers. And they were lucky if they made it to the slow lane: All too often, would-be passengers were stuck at a standstill in a line that stretched three, four, five hours. For three, four, five weeks.

Even as Hudson cleared security -- no frisking -- he spotted ominous signs behind him. "I could see the lines were starting to back up," he reported. And that wasn't all: The pesky TV cameras were out in force, documenting a city held hostage.

By incompetence. By hands too busy pointing fingers to shoulder the burden of getting the airport back on track.

"The media wouldn't do this in another city, like Chicago or New York," Hudson complained. But the media didn't have to do it in Chicago or New York. In the past few weeks, I've flown out of O'Hare (on the day the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, no less) and Kennedy (an actual international airport), and in each case, I cleared security in a matter of minutes -- wearing the very bra that had earned my dangerous bosom extra scrutiny at DIA ("Busted!" October 11).

While Denver's passengers waited and the rest of the country watched in amazement, those responsible for DIA's security-screening snarl pointed fingers. Argenbright Security, the Atlanta-based company that can't run required background checks on its own employees but was entrusted with the job of screening passengers at DIA, blamed the delays on United Airlines. United, which contracts with Argenbright, blamed the city for refusing to run more than fifteen background checks a day on potential Argenbright employees. And the city blamed just about everyone before finally vowing last Friday to do something, anything, to get DIA moving again.

And then Hudson headed off to Washington, D.C., where his boss will discuss emergency preparedness at the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Summit on Emergency, Safety and Security. Webb was chosen because Denver's experience with such world-class events as the Pope's 1993 visit and the 1997 Summit of the Eight resulted in this town having some of the country's best-trained emergency personnel.

Good. Now prove it.


At last, some uplifting news. A Japanese company, Triumph International, is set to manufacture a metal-free bra that won't set off airport screening devices. Instead of metal wires and hooks, the undergarment will rely on resinous wires and non-magnetic metal hooks, Reuters reports. Not only will the bra save time for female fliers, it will also help out overburdened security personnel, since it takes "considerable labor and time to identify what sets off metal detectors, resulting in slow immigration and boarding procedures," according to Triumph.

The bras, sold with matching panties, are known as "Frequent Flyers' Bras."

Denver women should order them by the gross.


Just a few hours after Hudson passed through security, Denver City Councilman Ed Thomas, who heads the council's airport committee, presented himself at DIA. In recent days, Thomas had passed through ten airports in five countries -- often alongside Mayor Webb -- and "the worst was DIA," he says. By this past weekend, Thomas had had enough: enough of the complaints from constituents, enough of the national snickering. "In my eight years on council," he says, "this was the issue that really electrified people." On Sunday, he asked Manager of Aviation Bruce Baumgartner to consider using off-duty public-safety personnel -- including cops, which Thomas used to be -- to help screen at DIA. "We have literally hundreds of officers who already have passed FBI background checks who could assist on an emergency basis to alleviate these ridiculous delays," Thomas proclaimed.

Naturally, that prompted more finger-pointing -- this time at Thomas. The city had thought of that, airport officials responded, and there was no way that actual police officers could be trained in the FAA's arduous procedures. The same procedures, of course, that Arbenbright's workers have executed so well.

On Monday, the lines at DIA were three hours long again.

On Tuesday, Thomas met with Baumgartner and FAA and United executives. Although Argenbright previously had whined that it couldn't possibly get up to full staffing for three weeks, airport officials have now changed that estimate to seven days -- with an additional hundred people coming aboard this week. They've also agreed to cross-train DIA personnel -- who've already passed through background checks -- to fill in on security tasks when needed. And Denver sheriff's officers, who have expertise enough to be entrusted with security in Denver's jails, will help screen airport employees offsite, removing 6,000 people from the lines each day.

"What they've done in one day is miraculous," Thomas says. "The airport has guaranteed that long lines are a thing of the past."

Help may be at hand -- and not just in the form of a metal-free bra.

 
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