As the Carousel Turns

Officials at Denver International Airport are moving forward with plans for major work on the baggage system in Concourse A, even though the carriers who use the concourse say they're happy with the system they have and don't want to pay for new construction. The expenditure also comes amid persistent rumors that the controversial automated baggage system at DIA will be scrapped entirely.

The city will soon issue a $2 million request for proposals for construction and design on what's known as the "permanent interface," a system that will allow airlines in the concourse to use either the manual baggage-handling system now in place or the notorious computerized system installed by Dallas-based BAE Automated Systems Inc. In the mad rush to get DIA open, the manual system was installed directly over the automated system in Concourse A. That automated system has never been used and probably never will be, but Concourse A tenants such as Continental Airlines and Frontier Airlines have to pay for it anyway.

DIA officials insist the work is needed simply to get the manual conveyor-belt system out of the way so that at some later date crews can get at the automated system. "It's important to remove the conveyors off the track," says Harry Lindmark, the city's project manager. "It allows for flexibility in the future."

Lindmark denies that the city is thinking about taking the automated system out altogether. But rerouting the conventional system would make it easier for crews to dismantle the automated system without impeding the daily flow of luggage.

Lindmark says that, when completed, the interface would affect primarily outbound luggage: "It's so a passenger checking in on Concourse A can either go to the conventional system or to the automated system, if that is ever working."

Aviation director Jim DeLong says the city wants the work done because it has already paid for a fully operational automated system in Concourse A. Rerouting the tracks will allow Denver to insist that BAE finish the job it was paid to do, he adds. "We want it completed in accordance with the contract," says DeLong.

BAE has said it isn't responsible for finishing the system in Concourse A since the company had no access to the automated system after the manual system was installed over it. That means Denver and BAE are probably headed for a legal showdown over the issue. But the carriers who now use Concourse A look askance at such maneuvering by the city and BAE. They see no problem with the old-fashioned baggage system they're using now, and they don't want to have their already high landing fees increased to pay for an "interface" between one system that works and another that doesn't.

"We're perfectly content with the system we have now," says Sam Addoms, president of Frontier Airlines, DIA's second-largest carrier. "We see no need to reroute it or alter it."

The $232 million high-tech BAE system has never worked as intended, but it did succeed in delaying the opening of the airport for more than a year, adding $361 million in interest charges to DIA's tab. The city first contracted with BAE at the behest of United Airlines, which insisted it needed an automated baggage system for its spanking new Concourse B. At that point, Continental Airlines demanded a high-tech system of its own at Concourse A. But even though Continental has now drastically cut back its Denver service--and even though the BAE system has never been used in Concourse A--the airlines there must pay $8 million a year to cover the cost of installing the idle machinery.

The only part of the BAE system that works at all is the section in Concourse B, which handles most of United's outbound luggage. However, fed up with constant failures and the breakdown of the system during the hectic Christmas travel season, United finally threw in the towel earlier this year and sued BAE for breach of contract. BAE countersued, claiming the system's problems were the fault of United employees who didn't follow proper procedures. United tossed BAE out of the airport in March and took over management of the computerized system.

Now United has hired a consulting firm to evaluate the automated system and help it decide what to do with it. "We're working with AT&T Solutions," says United spokesman Tony Molinaro. "Our own people are working with them, and they're in the middle of evaluating the system."

AT&T is one of a long line of consultants who have attempted to make sense of the gremlin-plagued BAE system. And Molinaro says United is conducting a separate study of baggage systems at airports around the country before deciding what final approach to take in Denver. He says there is currently no discussion about tearing out the whole system, even though United's lawsuit contends that the network of computerized carts and track might eventually have to be turned into "scrap metal."

United president John Edwardson recently said that the airline has had to hire 200 to 250 extra employees to make sure bags reach its customers, an unwelcome imposition given that the main purpose of installing the BAE system was to save on labor costs. "It's a bit too early to say what we'll do," adds Molinaro.

But many people familiar with DIA's baggage problems believe it's now inevitable that the automated system will be removed. "They are absolutely going to pull that system out," says one former DIA contractor. "The whole industry believes the system will be ripped out. It's not fixable."

Keeping the present manual system going, removing the BAE system and installing some type of high-speed conveyor belt as a permanent replacement would be a stressful juggling act for the huge carrier. "It will be a veritable nightmare for United," adds the contractor. "They may have to do this in piecemeal.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers