The Out of Towners

Passenger traffic was down by two million people last year at Denver International Airport. But a squadron of jet-setting city officials did their best to make up the difference.

Travel expense forms show that in the past fourteen months, the airport paid for a city councilwoman to attend a "Beach Baby Clam Bake" in the Virgin Islands, underwrote a week-long sojourn to the port city of Hong Kong by Mayor Wellington Webb's chief of staff, sent a city lobbyist on three trips to London, jetted an airport planning manager to Geneva, Switzerland, and Cape Town, South Africa, and financed no fewer than twelve out-of-town jaunts by the airport system's supervising attorney. In all, the city spent more than $200,000 flying politicians and administrators--and, on a handful of occasions, actual airport workers--around the globe.

Denver aviation director Jim DeLong defends the expenditures. "Our airport is about transportation," says DeLong, who adds that regular travel benefits the city by promoting DIA and keeping its officials up-to-date on aviation trends. "I conduct probably 65 to 70 percent of my business with people external to the city of Denver."

DeLong also stresses that DIA travel is paid for not with tax dollars, but from the airport revenue fund. That fund consists of fees and charges paid to the city by airlines serving DIA; the airlines in turn pass the costs along to their passengers.

DeLong's support for the city's see-the-world campaign isn't surprising: The airport boss is the king of Denver's frequent flyers. DeLong billed the airport revenue fund for $21,000 in 1995, more than any other city official. A big chunk of that went to pay for his flights to nine meetings of the trade group Airports Council International. DeLong's regular attendance at those industry confabs apparently paid off; he recently was named chairman of ACI and will spend much of 1996 out of town on ACI business while continuing to collect his full city salary of $138,480. DeLong says his various deputies will run the airport in his absence.

His extensive work for ACI benefits the city because the organization lobbies to make sure that federal aviation revenues aren't diverted from municipal airports, says DeLong. "I think as chairman of this organization, I'm in a unique position not only to fight for all the airports but quite frankly, selfishly, to fight for Denver," he says.

And Denver's top aviation official has spared no expense in waging that fight. More than $57,000 in city funds has gone to flying DeLong and other officials to ACI meetings in 1995 and 1996, including a four-day excursion last June during which airport planning manager Richard Veazey traveled to Geneva to discuss "issues of international importance pertaining to worldwide civil aviation."

Earlier this month Veazey was on the road again, jetting to Cape Town via South African Airlines to chair a meeting of ACI's technical/safety committee. On an internal expense form, Veazey explained the reason for his attendance. "Our new airport plays an important role in worldwide aviation and our participation on committees such as this raises the stature of Denver's aviation efforts in the eyes of other world airport interests," he wrote.

Veazey's international travel continued a proud tradition of globe-trotting by Denver airport employees. In October 1994, former public works manager Mike Musgrave ran up a $2,930 bill to attend the opening of a new airport in Frankfurt, Germany, including six nights at the $200-a-day Hotel Gravenbruch Kempinski. The next month, DeLong spent four days at an ACI gathering in exotic Marrakech, Morocco, where he spoke on the topic of "Thinking Big: The Risks and Opportunities for Mega-Airports." DeLong says he recalls spending only "six hours" in the North African city, but expense receipts on file at the airport indicate an $896 charge for five nights at the Mansour Eddahbi Pullman hotel.

In December 1994, it was airport operations manager Jim Dunlap who needed a passport. Herr Dunlap flew into Denver's "sister airport" in Munich to help "maintain the unique twelve-year relationship between Colorado and Bavaria." The city forked over $2,237 worth of goodwill.

At times Denver appears to use the airport revenue fund to conduct what amounts to its own foreign policy. One of DIA's most regular travelers, for example, is project manager Leslie Madsen, whom DeLong assigned to represent DIA in bilateral trade talks between the United States and the United Kingdom concerning airline service to England. Madsen took five trips to attend the trade talks last year, three of them to London, where she roomed at the exclusive Hotel Inter-Continental. "I spent most of my time in this little packed, windowless room" at the U.S. Embassy, says Madsen. "I was not down having high tea with the queen."

But why does Denver--which has no direct service to England--need its own personal ambassador to the trade talks? Madsen says she had to be there to make sure other American cities didn't get an unfair advantage in the race for new air routes. "It was very important for Denver to get out in front of this," says Madsen, who notes that 1995 was the first year the State Department allowed cities to dispatch their own representatives to aviation trade talks. The experiment in municipal diplomacy opened new travel horizons for Madsen, whose destinations the previous year included Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Steamboat Springs. But it apparently didn't pay off--the trade talks have since broken down, and Denver still has no nonstop flights to Great Britain.