One of the few undisputed facts about Denver International Airport is that the new automated baggage-handling system must succeed. Should the computerized network fail, there's no backup.

And that's not good news. Because despite last week's rosy reports that claimed the system was a hit, its batting average was actually a mediocre .250 through mid-January. In the four known tests to date, the system has had one modest single and three strikeouts.

Those stats should come as no surprise to the city's own consultants, who recommended against just such a system four years ago. Their report, however, was buried deeper than Pea Boulevard in a blizzard.

This month's dismal record doesn't mean the system is hopeless, though. Full-scale testing of the completed network isn't scheduled to begin until mid-February, when the $186 million linkup of Designated Coded Vehicles (DCVs), tracks, hardware and electronics will be loaded with bags and operated at full speed 24 hours a day until the airport opens. Or the system breaks down, whichever comes first.

DIA's computerized network is designed to begin either curbside or at the ticket counter, where luggage is "laser-tagged, put on a conveyor belt and moved into a track-mounted cart," explains Gene DiFonso, spokesman for the system's Dallas-based manufacturer, BAE Automated Systems. "The carts move at up to seventeen miles per hour to the departure gates, where the luggage is off-loaded onto conveyor belts and deposited near the departing aircraft." For incoming traffic the procedure is reversed.

Theoretically, that is. But when BAE tested the system at a mock-up at Dallas's international airport last year, it "ate the luggage, an incident witnessed by numerous airline representatives from Denver," according to Innerline, an independent industry newspaper published out of Stapleton.

When he attempted to question Mayor Wellington Webb about the failure at a BAE briefing last fall, Innerline editor Lance Ross says, he was scolded by Amy Lingg, Denver's communications director in charge of airport information services.

"I was told that my questions were inappropriate," recalls Ross. "It turns out it was the first time the mayor was even aware of the BAE malfunction."
BAE's DiFonso confirms the Dallas mock-up problems, but adds that the system underwent three "customer demonstrations" at DIA this month.

The trio of tests wasn't particularly reassuring. On January 11, 32 bags were moved from the American Airlines space at Concourse C, the concourse DIA has reserved for "all other" airlines besides Continental and United, Denver's two primary carriers. According to DiFonso, one bag was lost on the simple circuit but later recovered. That's a success rate of 96.8 percent--but multiply the failing 3.2 percent by tens of thousands of bags per day and DIA could have major trouble.

A test of the Continental system at Concourse A on the same day ended almost as soon as it began, after the electrical motors burned out.

The third test was conducted on January 18 at the United system on Concourse B. That trial ended when "the system jammed," says DiFonso.

All three of the DIA tests were limited in scope; none attempted interairline or interconcourse connections. The carts weren't fully loaded. They weren't running at full speed. And they certainly weren't running 24 hours a day.

While Denver's automated system is the world's largest, it isn't completely untried, DiFonso argues. "This is basically seventh-generation technology," he says. "The first system of this type was installed at Kennedy airport in New York in the early Seventies. Since then there have been smaller but similar systems at Dallas, Atlanta and San Francisco. They all work fine, although none are as extensive or as complicated as the one at Denver." Munich's new airport has a fully automated system, although "it is much slower" than DIA's, DiFonso says. That system has been operating correctly since May 1992--but round-the-clock testing of the complete system began a full two years before the facility's opening. And the German system wasn't designed by BAE.

BAE got the job at DIA even though Connecticut-based consultants Brieier Neidle Patrone and Associates recommended against such a baggage system in 1990.

At the city's request, the consultants studied three alternatives for handling luggage at DIA: the traditional tug-and-cart system, a multibag DCV system in which batches of bags would be loaded into automated carts, and a single-bag DCV system that allotted each bag its own cart.

Of the three, the tug-and-cart was the simplest, the cheapest and the slowest. The most complex system--but potentially the speediest--was the single-bag DCV. It was also the most cash-intensive; BNP estimated the price of such a system at $190 million, compared to $95 million for a multibag computerized network and just $5 million for a tug-and-cart.

After analyzing cost, maintenance needs and reliability, the consultants made the following recommendations to the city:

"We believe it is essential that the facilities be designed on the basis of an initial implementation of a tug-and-cart system for Concourse C carriers and automated systems for Concourse A and B carriers

"The single bag DCV solution should not be furthered, we believed, because of throughput limitations, development risk, competitive availability, etc."
In fact, the only system that carried "a high degree of development risk is the single bag Designated Coded Vehicle System concept," the consultants warned, and specifically recommended against adopting such a DCV system.

Nevertheless, that's what DIA has.
Denver actually decided to go with the automated system--and committed to building a basement area in which to house it--as early as 1988, two years before the consultants recommended against it, according to city documents. Although the $281 million required to build both the system and the basements didn't appear on airport prospectuses and published budgets until October 1991, that omission was an "oversight," according to then-aviation director George Doughty. He says the city decided on the automated system because the old-fashioned tug-and-cart was "too labor-intensive."

As a result, DIA has now put all of its luggage in the one DCV basket. Until the system starts performing better, travelers might be wise to limit their luggage to carry-on.

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David Chandler