Still Late For Arrival

Imagine yourself in a world of pure possibility, a world of eternally unfulfilled expectations. Imagine yourself at Denver International Airport, touted as one of the world's biggest and most technologically advanced. Banks of monitors announce arriving and departing flights . . . yet there are no planes. Restaurants, boutiques and ticket counters stand ready to serve . . . yet there are no passengers. A glittering palace of indoor gardens, burnished marble and glass silently waits -- and waits, and waits . . . .

Denver boosters talk of their new airport as "visionary," an investment for the 21st century. Never did they contemplate that it might prove too visionary, too futuristic. Denver International rises, pyramidlike, on a 53-square-mile swath of wind-swept prairie northeast of the city. Among the biggest public-works projects in decades, its troubles have become as epic as its scale. The airport has cost at least $2 billion more than voters originally approved. Critics all along have called it too big, too expensive, badly managed and, worst, not even necessary. Now it has come up against the most daunting (and mundane) obstacle of all -- a snafu in its heavily hyped, state-of-the-art automated baggage system. "It's a travesty, a completed airport that you can't open," fumes Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. It's easy to understand his ire, even if the city's partly to blame. Denver International has postponed its inauguration four times since October, and no relief is in sight. Costs are mounting by $1 million daily.

For Denver's city fathers, it's a nightmare come true. In conception, the baggage system was supposed to be a miracle of traveling convenience, a wonderwork of lasers and computers. Passengers would step off their planes, or out of their taxis at check-in, and technology would take over. Luggage would be sped at 17 miles an hour along 22 miles of underground rail track, each bag in its own little "telecar," and arrive at its destination untouched by human hand. Trouble is, as Webb angrily remarks, it just "does not work." At one inaugural test, airport officials watched aghast as the system flung bags into space, routed them on unintended detours, even ripped them open. Rather than tinker with the system indefinitely, and risk even more expensive delays, Webb earlier this month announced that the city would spend $50 million for a lower-tech fix: a manual system of conveyor belts and carts. To fund it, Denver will float $225 million more in airport bonds. By most reckonings, that hikes the airport's total cost to more than $4 billion.

The number raises eyebrows around Denver these days, especially since voters were originally told the project would cost $1.7 billion. But that was back in the rollicking '80s, when Denver was flush, amid an oil and gas boom. Business and tourists were flocking, and delays at Stapleton, Denver's existing airport, were legendary. Civic fathers seized upon the idea of a new airport as an emblem of Denver's prosperity. Planners set to work, confident in their vision. In 1985 they estimated the number of passengers departing Denver daily would grow to some 26 million by 1995; last year's figure was around 16 million, about flat with 1985. They also projected 36 daily flights to Europe; today, there is one. Meanwhile, the size of the airport has been scaled back to something smaller than Stapleton. Fairly or not, critics see the balky baggage system as a symbol of the airport's larger problems, a final penalty for giantism and boosterism run wild.

Airlines will foot the bill, and it's a lulu. The baggage system's cost began at $189 million. Add in the delays and expense of building a manual system, and the grand total approaches $600 million. "Ooooh, that's an ugly number," says Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant and airport critic, noting that operating costs for airlines flying out of Denver International (principally United, which will hub there) will be at least twice as high as at Stapleton. It's "given Colorado a black eye," agrees a top airline executive. Webb and other civic leaders fix the blame squarely on the folks who built the baggage system, BAE Automated Systems in Texas. Yet Denver shares responsibility, if only for being so ambitious.

As both the company and the airlines tell it, Denver officials too often stretched the limits of the doable. BAE had previously built only one version of its luggage system, and a small prototype at that. Constructing a fully automated system on the scale of Denver's had never before been done. So when things went wrong, they went wrong big. Example: the bumpers on the telecars interfered with the guidance system, sending them off course. BAE had to adjust them, on all 3,500 cars. Such fixes take time -- more time than Denver allotted in its rush-to-open schedule. Engineers also had to test the luggage system as they built it. That's been tough, since workers erecting a wall, say, kept knocking lasers out of whack, skewing the test. Design specifications kept changing; city officials altered plans and timetables, often without consulting either the airlines or the BAE engineers -- or else not listening when they did. "Everything dominoed," sighs Larry Poort, a BAE executive.

At a dinner meeting with Mayor Webb recently, an executive with United Airlines half-jokingly proposed mothballing the airport for a year or two. To operate profitably at the new airport, airlines have to get a passenger off one plane and onto a connecting flight in about half an hour. The proposed manual system, United officials say, might slow that to 50 minutes or more. "We're skeptical," says United spokesman Tony Molinaro, adding that the airline is "working with the city to make this work." No one's hazarding any guesses as to when Denver International will finally open. "It's ready when it's ready," says spokesman Briggs Gamblin, confident that Denver International will eventually work smoothly. Perhaps he's right. "Twenty years from now, these troubles will be forgotten," says an airline official. "People will think it's great." He pauses a moment, then adds a frustrated coda: But that won't be "in this millennium."