Denver undertook another diplomatic endeavor this past December, when DeLong and Webb chief of staff Stephanie Foote flew to Hong Kong so Foote could pursue the mayor's vision of a "trade mission" with the Asian metropolis. While in town, the Denver duo also attempted to woo Cathay Pacific Airlines to DIA, and performed a "critique" of Hong Kong's official plan for moving to its own new airport.
But even though the trip was made in part as a favor to Hong Kong officials, Foote says no thought was given to asking Hong Kong to pick up some of the tab. "I'm not sure whether that would be appropriate," she says. Instead, Foote billed the city $4,757 for the Hong Kong trip, three quarters of which paid for her "connoisseur class" seat on United Airlines. That seat was the "only class of service available," according to an expense form on file at the airport. (DeLong says Cathay Pacific has taken Denver's suggestion of a nonstop Asian flight "under advisement.")
It is Foote, a former city councilwoman, who signs off on all out-of-town travel by city employees. And like DeLong, she defends the use of the airport revenue fund as a cash reserve for official excursions. By meeting with aviation trade groups and other organizations, she says, "We have the opportunity to tell our story, to sell other airports and other countries on what we have to offer."
Foote isn't the only Denver politician who has developed a timely interest in international aviation. In fact, it has become something of a tradition for city council members to attend ACI meetings--including the notorious 1994 get-together in Toronto where several of them got into hot water for accepting free football and theater tickets and limousine rides from a concessionaire doing business with the city.
The council's current queen of the road is at-large representative Cathy Reynolds, who makes an average of three trips a year to ACI conferences. The highlight of Reynolds's itinerary last year was a June jaunt to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. According to an ACI brochure, that event featured a "welcome reception" aboard the Kon Tiki Party Raft, a glass-bottom boat that was scheduled to swing to the sounds of "Milo & the Kings." After a discussion of airport financing the following day, the aviation enthusiasts were encouraged to unwind at the "Beach Baby Clam Bake." That event on "magnificent Morning Star Beach" came complete with mood-setting torches, shrimp and other grilled specialties, and dance music from Chubby Checker and Elvis Presley guaranteed to provide a "blast from the past for all."
Reynolds was one of eleven Denver officials--including four other council members--who converged on an ACI conference last September in Washington, D.C., to hear such presentations as "New Denver International Airport: A Success Story!" Joining her at the Sheraton were fellow council members Polly Flobeck, Ted Hackworth, Happy Haynes and Dennis Gallagher. DeLong spent five nights in a $203-per-night room at the Sheraton during the conference, which was apparently so exhausting that, the day after checking out, he flew back to Colorado and immediately drove to a three-day "fall retreat" at the Hyatt Regency in Beaver Creek.
Even when he stuck to lowly auto travel, DeLong showed a talent for running up a tab; when he and deputy aviation director Diane Koller motored to Colorado Ski Country USA's annual meeting last May in Colorado Springs, they checked into the ritzy Broadmoor Hotel, each reserving a $165-a-night room rather than making the one-and-a-half-hour drive back to Denver.
Though the city stresses that taxpayer dollars are not used to pay for operations at DIA, anybody who flies in or out of Denver directly subsidizes airport expenses--including travel by city officials. United Airlines provides most of DIA's ready cash because the Chicago-based carrier handles roughly 70 percent of Denver's passenger traffic. And corporate spokesman Tony Molinaro says United is not unaware of the air miles being racked up by local officials on its dime.
The carrier has made no official complaint with the city about "using funds in this manner," says Molinaro. But he says the practice "has come to our attention and we will discuss it with the city." Molinaro declines to comment on specific expenditures. "We'd rather talk to the city and get their opinion on it before we talk to anybody else," he says.