Surrounded by happy, if cramped, campers unrolling toilet paper over my head, I thought to myself: There has to be a better way.
I had finally sunk so low as to fly out of Colorado Springs. And now I was paying the price, sheet by sheet.
Not that I enjoyed feeling like a party pooper. Most of my fellow passengers on Western Pacific were enjoying themselves tremendously, thrilled by the notion that they'd gotten away and gotten away with something, specifically cheap fares to places United Airlines might charge three times as much to reach (at least in my case, since I was headed back from D.C. after a no-Saturday-night-stay meeting). In fact, the entire scene was so cheery that I wouldn't have been surprised to see the tennies-clad flight attendants haul out the marshmallows, light campfires in the aisles and lead us in singing "Kumbaya." The toilet-paper game was just another charmin' portion of the festivities designed to keep our minds off the paltry snacks that had disappeared hours before. Each side of the plane raced to unroll tissue from the front to the back in one long streamer.
My side lost.
In the year since Denver International Airport opened, there have been many losers--but also a surprising number of winners. Here, in honor of the February 28 DIA opening anniversary coming up faster than frantic flyers headed down I-25 to Colorado Springs, is an arbitrary selection.
Ed Beauvais. Six years ago the founder of America West was fleeing Arizona--and hordes of angry creditors, including employees who'd bought into the discount airline only to see its future crash in flames. But today Beauvais rules over Colorado Springs, where in just a year of operation his Western Pacific Airlines has been so successful that it's funding a $3 million expansion that will add five gates to the twelve-gate airport (which opened on time and under-budget in the fall of 1994, before DIA managed to do neither).
United Airlines. While those in search of cheaper seats head south, United continues to pack its planes at DIA--where the airline now commands 70 percent of the traffic (and pays about 70 percent of the bills). The airline also commands plenty of attention from Denver officials who, after the second DIA opening delay, borrowed $30 million against United's long-term lease at the facility, and then in August 1994 surrendered responsibility for the allegedly automated baggage system to United. Now United says it doesn't want to pay for a sixth runway at DIA. Any bet on who will ultimately pick up the tab?
Continental Airlines. Continental took a different approach to DIA: It almost pulled out entirely, leaving Concourse A, designed to the airline's specifications, nearly empty. But so far (and pending some kind of resolution with the city on its lease for those abandoned DIA gates), Continental's strategy has paid off. Last year the airline earned a record profit of $224 million--and that's after sharing profits with employees. United employees, who now own their airline, are still waiting to see some return on their investmentEand in the meantime blame DIA for increased operating costs.
Vendors on the B and C concourses. Would-be-airport concessionaires battled hard to win their DIA leases--and then scrambled to hang on through fifteen months of delays before the first ka-ching of the cash register. But they were rewarded for their steadfastness: Concession sales at DIA have far surpassed original projections. The truth is, the only airport revenue streams in which reality has outperformed fantasy are parking and concessions--DIA officials estimate each passenger shells out an average $5 at the shops.
Tugs and carts. Two years ago airport planners insisted that no way could tugs and carts get luggage to the far reaches of Concourse C on time. Wrong again.
DIA bondholders. The bonds are such hot commodities that Denver plans to buy back close to $2 billion in municipal bonds (out of nearly $4 billion sold) in order to resell them at lower interest rates.
Lawyers. DIA's opening may have been delayed, but the bills from attorneys hired as bond counsels, and to defend the city against numerous investigations, and to do the deal in the first place, have an on-time arrival record unmatched by any airline.
Claustrophobics. When Ed Beauvais opens his wallet in Colorado Springs, he should sprinkle a little largesse on the baggage area--where happy people meeting all those happy passengers make the conditions on his planes seem spacious. But then, DIA has its own delights for claustrophobics: The trains and those hairpin turns leading from the train doors up the escalators to the terminals. Moo. For close to $5 billion, we couldn't buy a little breathing room?
MarkAir ticketholders. Deals have their downside, as anyone left holding the carry-on bag when MarkAir shut down can attest. At one point, the city considered giving a $30 million subsidy to the in-and-out-of-bankruptcy Alaska-based airline to increase operations at DIA (and give some low-cost competition to United). When MarkAir suddenly shut down , the city was still thoughtful enough to provide police protection for the airline agents. And it was the cops, not MarkAir employees, who informed ticket-holders they were grounded.
Taxi drivers, taxi passengers. Until Mayor Wellington Webb intervened last month, taxi drivers had to endure long waits for fares--only to get stiffed on tips after passengers discovered the cost of a ride downtown. Since Webb intervened, the drivers still endure long waits, but at least have porta-potties that don't tip over in the wind.
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Business flyers. Thanks to competition from such upstarts as Frontier, there are deals to be had at DIA. Just don't try to have them without a Saturday-night stay--which means many economically minded corporations are having their midweek meetings elsewhere.
The media. Less than a month remained to DIA's much-ballyhooed March 1, 1994, opening date when the media finally caught on to the fact that the automated baggage system was eating luggage. And by then, it was too late for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post to stop their special commemorative DIA editions. Not, however, that the boosterish copy read very differently from the stories that had gone beforeEor since.
Stapleton. Who'd have dreamed we'd ever be nostalgic for the old, paid-off, close-by place?
Let the good times unroll.