THE PARTY'S OVER
Last Monday night we were in limbo--literally--over Stapleton. Returning from several days out of town (and out of touch), we were toasting our last flight into the old airport and the end of an era when the pilot's voice came over the loudspeaker. Appropriately enough, he told us that because of "weather" (the word is always pronounced like some loathesome disease), we would be circling over Denver in an endless holding pattern.
Although it's difficult for most of us to remember back that far--back through the broken schedules and promises, back through millions of dollars in cost overruns, back to the brief period when Denverites thought they'd voted to construct a $1.7 billion facility that was actually larger than Stapleton--those "weather"-inspired delays were the primary inducement for dumping the old airport. That, and the politicians' vow that no taxpayer money would be used to build DIA--another promise left in limbo.
Still, when we finally landed February 28, it was almost possible to feel nostalgic for Stapleton (not to mention the eleven-buck, eleven-minute cab rides downtown). The main terminal, which never was an architectural marvel, had the stripped-down look of Woolworth's right before the final closeout. Not a chair in sight. Tacky souvenirs that even World Youth wouldn't buy now marked down to half-price.
The bargain-basement feel carried right over to the third floor of the parking garage, where we ran smack into a gaggle of tired reporters waiting outside the portentously named "Airport 2000" office. Mayor Wellington Webb, aviation director Jim DeLong, assorted other city officials and representatives of Continental and United airlines had been duking it out behind those closed doors since nine that morning: We'd stumbled into hour eleven of the death watch on DIA's opening date.
Which, of course, had been scheduled for today, March 9.
Webb finally emerged from the room to make the inevitable pronouncement: DIA simply wasn't ready. The state-of-the-art baggage system (which "eats" luggage, Westword had reported five weeks earlier) was a disaster. And although the airlines couldn't afford the public-relations mess that would result from thousands of lost bags, they swore they could afford to pick up the $30-to-$40 million tab (depending on who's counting) that would buy a two-month delay.
Continental seemed particularly sporting about the whole thing, given its precarious finances. Just three days earlier it had packed DIA with socialites and sycophants for a black-tie gala designed to unveil the airlines' new customer-service facilities. The party's official theme: "Continental Building Bridges in Colorado." The underlying, unacknowledged reality: Continental was actually ready to burn its bridges in Colorado.
Along the East Coast, word already had leaked out that Continental was planning to transfer many of its employees from Denver to North Carolina. But the fact that the city was about to lose 1,400 jobs and, probably, one of its two hub airlines, was no reason to stop the party.
Amazingly, no matter how many times the airport's actual opening is postponed, the parties proceed as scheduled. DIA's debut had just been pushed back from October to December 1993 when the grandiosely titled (and staffed) New World Airport Commission hosted its giant air show in September--clogging roads for miles and hours, cutting into valuable construction time and ringing up an unanticipated quarter-million-dollar bill for Denver in the process. And that was just one of the celebrations the commission--headed by Charles Ansbacher, husband of millionaire philanthropist Swanee Hunt--had in store for the city.
Soon Webb was announcing that the airport's December opening had been pushed back until March 9: DIA simply wasn't ready. The commission, however, partied on at its November 19 grand opening gala, a glitzy event that hyped the second-rate celebrities in attendance and glossed over the half-finished interior of the airport terminal. The designer dresses barely fit into the porta-potties. The gala was billed as a benefit for United Way; soon thereafter, Ansbacher presented the nonprofit with a $300,000 check.
Denver, however, has yet to be reimbursed all the money it fronted the commission in airport funds--even though the commission, like DIA, wasn't supposed to cost taxpayers a penny.
But the city will get another chance. Because although, yes, the airport has been put on hold yet again (and with it the New World Airport Commission's official March 9 dedication ceremony that was to feature former mayor and current Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena), the commission parties on. It still plans to host its scheduled March 19 festivities, slated to begin with an "official capstone-laying ceremony to include the Time Capsule," and end with a private reception honoring the artists who've been working out at DIA. (The commission did agree to cancel the public open houses designed to show off the new art.) After that, the group promises, "the New World Airport Commission will close down its operations in accordance with its articles of incorporation." It will leave behind its boosterish guide to the new airport, sales of which are supposed to help pay off its bills.
Ansbacher, the commission's chairman, has already departed--from Stapleton--to join his wife in Austria, where she is now the U.S. ambassador. Continental Airlines, whose recorded message pronounced it the "Official Airline of Colorado" as recently as last Friday, has changed its tape. And the chairs are back at Stapleton.
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