Deep in the bowels of Denver International Airport, in the underground chamber that houses the notorious $218.5 million automated baggage system, sits a woman with perhaps the most mind-numbing job in Denver. Perched on a metal chair in a mile-long tunnel that looks as wide as a four-lane highway, she spends her day reading tattered paperbacks under blindingly bright fluorescent lights, trying to ignore the roar from the convoluted baggage system moving over her head. Her job is simple and surprisingly low-tech. If bags fly off the system or a piece of machinery falls on the track, she shuts the whole thing down.

Which is exactly what happened over the Christmas holidays, when the inbound portion of the world's most advanced baggage-handling system was overwhelmed and United Airlines had to revert to the low-tech tug-and-cart system to move 55,000 bags a day. That "backup" system, installed by Rapistan Demag Inc. for a paltry $63 million, moves baggage for all the airport's carriers except United.

While executives from BAE Automated Systems Inc. and United--and bureaucrats from the city--spend their time blaming one another for the baggage-system mess, the average Joes who work in the tunnel and have to find a way to get the bags to the planes have their own perspective on Denver's high-tech marvel: They think it's a dud and should be ripped out.

"The baggage handlers are sick of the whole thing," says one person who's worked at DIA since it was under construction. "They want the BAE system to go."

Ever since the airport opened last February, the bag system's builder, BAE, has insisted it is only weeks away from giving United a fully operational system that would rank as one of the eight wonders of the world. The company has missed deadlines in August, November and December; United has now given BAE until the end of this month to get its act together.

The tunnel is supposedly off-limits to everyone but DIA employees with security clearance, but Westword gained access last week for an impromptu tour. Airport employees had a good laugh recently when they read that DIA boss Jim DeLong told Denver Post columnist Chuck Green he couldn't take him into the tunnel because it was a "secured area." In fact, anyone with a security card is allowed to bring in up to six visitors, and many DIA employees have taken wives, cousins and even Aunt Irma from Des Moines in there.

Those who work on the baggage system have established a sort of underground fraternity, and they trade gossip as avidly as socialites at a debutante ball. None of them wants to be quoted by name, fearing reprisals, but the DIA rumor mill is working overtime following the baggage system's spectacular failure over Christmas and New Year's.

The latest buzz on the baggage workers' grapevine is that United and BAE had a tense meeting last week and that the huge carrier is running out of patience with BAE. Every time United tries to move more than thirty bags a minute on the automated system, the baggage workers know there will be trouble. The simple tug-and-cart system--the baggage equivalent of a Hyundai--can move sixty bags per minute, double the number of the Rolls-Royce system BAE promised Denver.

The big boys from United have been spotted prowling the tunnel, and word has it that United's baggage consultants, BNP Associates of Darien, Connecticut, have put together a proposal to mothball the BAE system over a two-year period. United would then install a high-speed conveyor system to serve DIA, according to the story making the rounds of DIA employees. BNP is the same company that told the city in 1990 that BAE's technology was too unproven to be functional by October 1993, when the airport was originally to open. That advice was ignored, in large part because of pressure from United, which was demanding an automated baggage system for Concourse B.

United Airlines is now owned by its employees, and its executives have gotten an earful from their guys and gals in the tunnels. United is working on big projects to upgrade baggage systems at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., and at San Francisco International. In both cities, United has snubbed BAE and opted to install high-speed conveyor-belt systems.

But in the tunnel at DIA, the baggage handlers are always on edge, never knowing when they're going to have to jump in their carts and move a load of luggage that the quarter-of-a-billion-dollar system can't handle. The system itself looks like something out of Rube Goldberg's sketchbooks. The elaborate contraption features thousands of levers and wheels that move hundreds of plastic tubs along a labyrinth of conveyor belts. Visitors are warned not to stand underneath the system because parts of it, the workers say, have been known to fly off and strike people in the head. (The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the hazards of the baggage handlers' workplace.)

When asked how the system is performing, one worker sighs. "It's working today," he says wearily. Another says United is still having major problems with the "lizard head" conveyors, which are supposed to move luggage from the system directly into the aircraft cargo holds.

For now, the baggage handlers exist in a weird limbo, never knowing just when they may have to put the tug-and-cart system into operation. A stack of crossword puzzles sits on a table to help them through the slow times, and one baggage handler is already most of the way through one of them. On the other side of the tunnel, the woman who spends all day watching the luggage pass overhead turns another page of her book, waiting for the next crisis.


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