Few people love Denver International Airport as much as Gregorio Bonifacio.
More than five years ago, Bonifacio began working at DIA as a security guard while it was still under construction. He then held a series of temporary jobs at the airport, doing everything from driving a fuel truck to throwing baggage onto conveyor belts. Bonifacio was proud to work at the newest, most modern airport in the world.
"I've always wanted to be associated with DIA," he says. "It's beautiful and modern, and I get a 10 percent discount at the restaurants."
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Born in the Philippines, he became a U.S. citizen after joining the Navy and serving in Vietnam. For nearly two decades, he worked as an accounting clerk for the Southern Pacific Railroad in California before being transferred to Denver in the early 1990s. His accounting background and his experience working on a shipboard newsletter in the Navy led to another temporary job at DIA last year, in the marketing and public-relations office, where he clipped newspaper articles that mentioned the airport and compiled a list of airline officials whom DIA wanted to target in its marketing effort.
Then he got an assignment he would never forget.
As part of the airport's preparations for Y2K and the much-hyped possibility of power outages and computer failures, DIA officials decided to distribute miniature flashlights to passengers arriving on New Year's Eve. Bonifacio was assigned the task of assembling more than 2,000 of the commemorative black flashlights, each one emblazoned with the baby-blue logo "Y2K @ DIA." While much of the rest of the marketing staff was out of the office during the holidays, Bonifacio sat in a corner putting batteries inside each of the flashlights.
"It was a very tedious thing to do," he says. "I was thinking the media might be interested in this as a human-interest story. I thought I wouldn't be causing any harm to anybody, and since nobody was in the office, I went ahead and did a two-paragraph press release to the media."
Shortly after the December 28 release, the press -- hungry for anything to do with Y2K -- descended on the public-relations office like a pack of wolverines. Stories about the flashlights showed up in newspapers from Atlanta to Chicago, and the office was soon filled with the glare of television lights.
Bonifacio says he never spoke to any reporters himself but referred all calls to DIA's official spokesman Chuck Cannon. "We had TV cameramen all over the place, lining up to get an interview with Chuck Cannon," recalls Bonifacio. "I've never seen so much frenzied activity."
Much to his surprise, Bonifacio discovered that what he had done was considered an egregious violation of airport policy, since all press releases must be authorized by Cannon. He was called into the office of Cannon's boss, DIA Deputy Manager of Aviation Amy Bourgeron, and fired the next day.
Bonifacio says he infuriated Cannon when he decided to single-handedly issue the press release on the flashlights, and he claims Cannon described him as a "media hound."
"I didn't know some people I worked with were so egotistical," he says. "Chuck Cannon thought this was an embarrassment to him. He marched into Amy Bourgeron's office demanding I get kicked out. I feel he overreacted. He should have told me this was an improper thing to do."
Bonifacio insists he was a victim of his own naiveté. "Nobody gave me any instructions in what I should do," he says. "I thought if we had anything interesting going on, we should contact the media. They didn't say, 'Let's sit down and clarify what you're supposed to do and what you're not supposed to.'"
Bourgeron says Bonifacio wasn't really fired, since he was an on-call clerical employee who worked for the airport on a day-to-day basis. She says the airport has always told its staff that Cannon is in charge of issuing all press releases. "We're pretty clear with all employees about the protocol for doing certain things, including issuing press releases," she says. "The requirement is that Chuck Cannon manages the release of all information. Greg's job was to help us with things of a clerical nature."
Bonifacio would love to work at DIA again, but he believes he's been blacklisted from the airport and treated unfairly by the powers that be at DIA. "I have a very good record," he says. "I didn't steal anything or get in any fights. I was doing a good job. Then suddenly I got entangled with this man with an enormous ego."
According to Bonifacio, after the press release went out, Bourgeron told Cannon, "If you ever find out who faxed the media, hire him." But that wasn't enough to save his job. "They said they can't trust me to work in this office," he says. "Why didn't they just say, 'Greg, you can't initiate media contact'? I would accept that."
Despite the brouhaha, the commemorative flashlights were an unqualified marketing success. After distributing more than 2,000 of them on New Year's Eve, demand was so strong that the airport ordered an additional 2,500 flashlights and was able to sell them for $5 each. (One woman bought seventeen of them.) On eBay, the gigantic Internet auction house, the flashlights were fetching as much as $15 in January.
Bourgeron says one of the problems with Bonifacio's press release was that it made people think the airport was giving away free flashlights over several days instead of just on New Year's Eve. "We were inundated with requests for the flashlights," she adds. "Because we couldn't meet the demand, we decided to purchase an additional 2,500 and make them available for sale."
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Because of the clamor for the flashlights, DIA officials are now considering a line of promotional merchandise, and visitors may soon find DIA T-shirts, baseball caps and coffee mugs at airport gift shops. "We think there might be a market for DIA items," says Bourgeron.
As for the 53-year-old Bonifacio, he's in the market for a new job. Despite being shown the door at DIA, he retains his firm patriotism and points out that he's had many wonderful experiences living in the United States. He also vows not to let his most recent problem discourage him.
"I was hoping to complete my career at a beautiful airport called Denver International," he says. "Now I'll add this to my list of experiences in this country."