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Denver Airport to Bypass Balky Baggage Mover

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Desperate to get its 21st-Century airport open after four failed tries and unwilling to wait for the bugs to be worked out of its high-tech baggage handling system, the city is gambling on a new backup hauler: the old-fashioned kind.

Mayor Wellington Webb announced Thursday that the city intends to build an alternative system to get the $3.7-billion airfield up and running by early next year while engineers try to fix its $193-million network of computers, lasers and underground high-speed tracks.

The “new” system--a network of conveyor belts, carts and tugs found at most of the nation’s existing airports--is projected to cost as much as $50 million.

The tab would be covered under an estimated $200-million bond issue that Denver intends to sell this month. That would also cover $33 million a month in interest on revenue bonds, maintenance and operating costs that the city has been paying on Denver International Airport since January.

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But a bullish Webb, who some critics say is anxious to open the airport before his reelection campaign begins, stopped short of announcing a firm target date to launch DIA, undoubtedly wary after previous airport openings were scrubbed.

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“We cannot afford to wait any longer,” Webb said of the airport that has remained closed for 10 months.

“We cannot continue any longer than absolutely necessary to have a $3-billion airport sitting virtually complete but still unusable,” he said. “An alternate system is required and will be built.”

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The latest opening date of May 15 was bagged after video footage aired nationwide showed the sophisticated system flinging bags and their contents willy-nilly--unable to deliver a single bag to its destination during repeated tests. Those images prompted wags across the country to dub DIA “Denver Imaginary Airport” and “Doesn’t Include Airplanes,” among various unflattering names.

That same month, Webb overslept and missed a 4:45 a.m. appointment with ABC’s “Good Morning America” while on a campaign to stifle controversy swirling around the new airport.

Given these and other public-relations black eyes, it remains to be seen whether there will be buyers for new Denver airport bonds. The city’s rating was lowered to a notch above “junk” status by at least one New York bond house after the May 15 date fizzled.

But an even bigger problem for Webb and the airport may loom if United Airlines, DIA’s biggest tenant, refuses to go along with construction of the backup system.

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United, which insisted on the ambitious computerized hauler in the first place to ensure quick turnarounds of its planes in Denver, reportedly is worried that the alternative system will be too slow and result in costly delays.

“United has indicated they’re not comfortable with our approach,” Webb said. “In that regard, I have written to United chairman of the board Gerald Greenwald to let him know that my door remains open.

“We would value any input that would help us improve the alternate system, and will continue to extend an invitation to United to work with us over the next 30 days to identify any improvements we can make to our plan.”

In a terse response, Stephen Steers, senior vice president of customer service for United Airlines, said: “We are not rejecting the proposal out of hand, but simply need more time to review all alternatives.

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“We have $300 million invested (in the new airport) and we want to see some return on it,” Steers said. “We can’t open with a baggage system that was hastily conceived and may not meet the needs of our customers.”

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Beyond that, Steers complained that city officials did not inform United about its alternative plan until Monday, and only gave the carrier an hour to review the proposal.

Asked if United plans to take its arguments to court, Steers said, “We want to reserve rights to all our options.”

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Earlier, United officials expressed concerns that a conventional backup system could more than double the 25-minute turnaround time the airline needs to operate profitably here. United plans to have 284 flights a day out of DIA and can ill afford delays.

Some observers say an advantage to remaining at Stapleton International Airport until DIA’s automated network is fully functional--a feat that some engineers believe could take up to two years to accomplish--is that United would not be paying additional operating costs at DIA at a time when its employees have taken over ownership and a new board of directors is trying to boost ridership and earnings.

Continental Airlines, which has signed a lease to operate the 20 gates on DIA’s Concourse A for five years, decided a week ago to cut back its operation in Denver to 23 flights a day beginning Nov. 1 as part of an ongoing plan to increase profitability. At one time, that airline originated 200 flights a day from Stapleton.

Hoping to avert further delays that threaten the city’s financial well-being, Webb opted to build the stand-in baggage system, which is expected to perform at least as well as Stapleton’s.

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The decision, which must be ratified by the Denver City Council, was recommended on Tuesday by a consulting firm, Logplan of Frankfurt, Germany. Logplan based its conclusion on information provided by the company that designed the computerized system, BAE Automated Systems Inc. of Dallas.

As recently as two weeks ago, BAE officials promised the city that its computerized baggage system will be completed, tested and ready for operation by Oct. 9.

Webb was not impressed. “Based on past experience,” he said, “we don’t believe that date will be any better than the last ones.”

Disregarding United’s misgivings, the city plans to give the job of building the makeshift luggage-mover to Rapistan Demag Corp. of Grand Rapids, Mich., a subsidiary of the German industrial and telecommunications giant Mannesmann AG.

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Rapistan already has provided the city with a detailed schedule of a proposed system that it believes could be on line by February at the latest, city officials said.

The makeshift system will require major changes and building modifications at the new airport. Transformers must be installed to power the conveyor belts. Sorting and distributing of luggage and other cargo, which is expected to be handled on a floor of the passenger parking garage, must comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how well the new airport debt will sell on the bond market. As it stands, the new airport has a BB rating, the lowest investment-grade rating with Standard & Poor’s, the nation’s leading bond-rating agency.

Ernie Perez, director of Standard & Poor’s municipal transportation group, said the new bonds will be rated BB as well.

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“Unless there is something really dramatic that I don’t know right now, we won’t revisit the rating,” Perez said. “It’s low enough now to incorporate that risk.”

In 1987, Denver’s voters approved what was promised would be a 120-gate, $1.7-billion facility that would give the then-depressed economy a boost and generate revenue and jobs for 100 years--all this without spending city tax dollars.

Officials--including the airport’s original guiding force, ex-mayor Federico Pena, now the U.S. transportation secretary--said that the new airport was needed because there was no room to expand Stapleton, a facility punished by winter flight delays that back up air traffic across the nation.

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What residents got is an 88-gate, $3.7-billion airport with five all-weather runways, 15,000 covered parking spots for automobiles, computer-operated subway trains and a glitch-plagued baggage handling system.

“The only thing worse than not opening Denver International Airport and paying $33 million a month in delay costs,” Webb said, “is opening DIA and then having to shut it down because the baggage system does not work.”

Times researcher Ann Rovin in Denver contributed to this story.


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