Off Limits

Acting flighty: Okay, so Denver city officials who've spent the last four years on their hands and knees begging an airline--any airline--to launch an overseas nonstop from Denver have earned the right to crow about British Airways' new London service. Those spiffy new 777s look nifty out on the tarmac, the flight attendants' clipped accents are cool in an Austin Powers kind of way, and it was almost dignified when city fire trucks rushed out to spray an arc of water over the first arriving BA plane (they really had to boogie, since a whopping tailwind pushed the plane in an hour ahead of schedule). The city, however, has no plans to drag out the hoses on behalf of another European carrier that's quietly getting out of the local passenger market.

Martinair Holland, the Dutch airline that became the first company brave enough to offer nonstop transoceanic service from landlocked DIA when it initiated once-a-week service to Amsterdam, will quietly discontinue the service at the end of the month. Why would Martinair put the kibosh on Denver passenger service just as ski season approaches? According to district sales manager Jenny Wyser, the airline was perfectly happy with its local load factors but believed that even hotter opportunities were presenting themselves south of the border. "South America has developed so fast" as a potential market, says Wyser, that the airline has decided to reroute its 767 to sunnier climes.

Golden-based aviation consultant Mike Boyd, however, says that he suspects Martinair's run for the border has as much to do with DIA's high costs as it does with the South American economy. "It's a very expensive airport," says Boyd. "It's not enough to put people on the airplane. If they can put people on the plane in Caracas and that airport costs less, that's what they'll do."

Martinair's not pulling out of Denver completely. On October 25 the airline plans to inaugurate a weekly freight-only flight to Amsterdam. Wyser says cargo loads have exceeded expectations, thanks to Colorado's booming high-tech sector; the airline is busy packing computers and telephone equipment for shipment to Holland. In return, she says, the Dutch send back flowers and vegetables, primarily bell peppers and tomatoes.

Says Boyd, "If I were a box, I'd be elated."
Meanwhile, Boyd, known for his skeptical--and largely accurate--view of DIA's fortunes, says the next international departure from the airport could come with an Oriental flavor. Given the financial crisis gripping southeast Asia, he's concerned that longstanding rumors about Korean Air Lines canceling its three-times-a-week flight to Los Angeles and on to Seoul could come true. For now, Boyd says, the Colorado connection is probably more important to KAL than it is to Denver--"they need those extra people they're putting on in Denver to make the L.A. flight work." But the consultant notes that airlines aren't always known for keeping cool when financial markets are collapsing. (Panic, after all, can be much more attractive.)

Complicating the situation is the fact that ticket sales for KAL's Denver flights have been about as overpowering as your average Hyundai. A local spokesman for the airline describes the number of people boarding the carrier's baby-blue 747s every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday as "fair" and acknowledges that "we're still trying to pick up the load factors." He insists, however, that KAL has said nothing to local employees about scrapping the service.

Meanwhile, longtime observers of the city's efforts to woo overseas service are recalling the 1990 consultant's report that urged the city to pursue another flashy international route. The flight: Denver to Zurich. The airline: Swissair.

Back at the Denver Department of Aviation's other airport, a plan to peddle Stapleton to the private sector is finally approaching liftoff. The Stapleton Development Corporation, an odd mix of high-powered businessmen and community activists set up in 1995, hopes to ink a deal with a private development partner by the end of October that will enable it to move forward with its utopian vision of the airfield as a sociologically correct cluster of "urban villages."

Among the groups still in the running for the deal (believe it or don't) is an investment group led by Harvey Deutsch, flamboyant former attorney to S&L deadbeat Bill Walters who made headlines last year when he pressured the city to sell Stapleton to him and his pals for the fire-sale price of $30 million. Deutsch and his boys are a long shot to get the nod, especially because they've openly ridiculed the SDC's go-slow approach in the past. And the city has a special interest in having the SDC take its time and pick a winner: Any money received from land sales at Stapleton will be funneled back to Denver to repay the mounting debt at DIA.

Talk about your flight risks.

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