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Denver Airport Saw the Future. It Didn't Work.

Published: August 27, 2005

DENVER, Aug. 26 - Ten years ago, the new Denver International Airport marched boldly into the future with a computerized baggage-handling system that immediately became famous for its ability to mangle or misplace a good portion of everything that wandered into its path.

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Kevin Moloney for The New York Times

Miles of tracks were supposed to make baggage movement simple at Denver's new airport. They never did.

Now the book is closing on the brilliant machine that couldn't sort straight. Sometime over the next few weeks, in an anticlimactic moment marked and mourned by just about nobody, the only airline that ever used any part of the system will pull the plug. An episode bowing equally to John Henry, Rube Goldberg and Hal from "2001" will end.

People will be fully back in charge.

"Automation always looks good on paper," said Veronica Stevenson, a lead baggage handler for United Airlines and president of the union local that represents United's 1,300 or so baggage handlers in Denver. "Sometimes you need real people."

The handoff in baggage handling also illustrates how much has changed in airline economics since Denver's grandiose dream was envisioned in the early 1990's. Airlines that were flush then are struggling and looking for ways to save money now, as United will do by shutting down computerized baggage-moving.

Technology, too, has brought change. Back then, the big-brained mainframe doing it all from command central was the model of high tech. Today the very idea of it sounds like a cold-war-era relic, engineers say. Decentralization and mobile computing technology have taken over just about everything, allowing airlines, warehouse operators and shippers like FedEx to learn with just a few clicks the whereabouts of an item in motion, a feature that was supposed to be a chief strength of the baggage system.

The premise of Denver's plan was as big as the West. The distance from a centralized baggage check-in to the farthest gate - about a mile - dictated expansive new thinking, planners said, and technology would make the new airport a marvel. Travelers who arrived for check-in or stepped off a plane would have their bags whisked across the airport with minimal human intervention. The result would be fewer flight delays, less waiting at luggage carousels and big savings in airline labor costs.

Tours that preceded the system's debut led invariably to an airport basement where 26 miles of track, loaded with thousands of small gray carts, sped bags up and down inclines as conveyor belts minutely timed by the computer deposited each bag in its cart at just the right moment.

"They were so proud of it," said Raymond Neidl, an airline-aerospace analyst with Calyon Securities in New York. "It's the one thing they wanted to show you."

But then the price tag ballooned along with glitches. Construction costs of $186 million were compounded at a rate of $1 million a day for months in 1994 when the airport's opening was delayed by baggage-handling failures. Tens of millions more have been spent in the years since for repairs and modifications.

United, Denver's busiest airline, has been using a stripped-down, simplified version of the network for its outgoing flights since the airport opened in 1995 - though "enduring" is probably the better word, since regular breakdowns have continued despite years of tinkering.

Automation never worked for incoming flights, whose baggage has been moved by handlers from the beginning. And no other airline ever tried to use the error-prone system at all.

United's general manager for customer service in Denver, Jim Kyte, says the pressure to cut costs as the airline struggles to emerge from bankruptcy, along with sharply rising fuel prices this year, ultimately forced the issue. Turning off the computer and reverting to the old-fashioned use of human beings who drive luggage carts from gate to gate - the way things are still done at most airports - will save $1 million a month in maintenance costs, which have far exceeded expectations.

The change might also bring new terms to a lease that now provides for United to pay the city, the automated system's owner, $60 million a year until 2025. Asked about the prospect of trying to renegotiate with Denver, a United spokesman, Jeff Green, said, "We are reviewing all options."

Those kinds of costs aside, the error rate among baggage handlers is lower than the befuddled computer could ever achieve, Mr. Kyte said. A test run this summer using workers to handle baggage for transfer flights through the airport has already proved its value, he said, with the number of mishandled bags down sharply in July from the corresponding month a year ago.

"We're going back to the future," Mr. Kyte said.

Workers with hand-held scanners, checking baggage bar codes at every juncture of transit, will give managers far better information and control than could have been imagined when the automated system was designed, officials at United said.

One expert who has studied the sad sack arc of baggage movement in Denver said the designers had invested too much belief in the wizardry they thought was at their command.

"It wasn't the technology per se, it was a misplaced faith in it," said Richard de Neufville, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor de Neufville said the builders had imagined that their creation would work well even at the busiest boundaries of its capacity. That left no room for the errors and inefficiencies that are inevitable in a complex enterprise.

"The main culprit was hubris," he said.

Sharp corners, for example, were too much for the system to deal with. The whirring baggage carts, programmed to pick up and drop off bags in a perfectly coordinated ballet, often just tipped over and dumped their loads.

Then there was the lizard tongue, formally known as a telescoping belt loader, which was designed to shoot out from the track system's maw directly to an airplane's luggage doors. It, too, was a flop.

BAE Automated Systems of Carrollton, Tex., which designed the system, has since been liquidated, and no one associated with the effort could be reached for comment.

The abandonment of computerized baggage transit is hardly the only step that United has taken to cut costs. The airline, which filed for bankruptcy in 2002, has repeatedly asked employees to share the pain, and many current and former workers could lose some pension benefits. Even the death of the automated system is not expected to result in additional jobs, since an increase in baggage handlers will be offset by a decline in the number of maintenance workers.

Industry analysts say recapturing and maintaining the good will of the workers will be crucial to the airline's ultimate recovery. "If they can keep the peace," Mr. Neidl said, "they have a chance of becoming a powerhouse in the industry again. If the employees declare war, the company will probably go the way of Pan Am."

In any event, managers at the airport say the failure of big-thought baggage transit does have a plus: lots of room in the basement. Denver has 33 baggage scanners the size of minivans that, as required by federal security regulations in the wake of 9/11, screen every piece of luggage. No one envisioned those regulations when the airport was built, or imagined where such machines might be put.

"When the federal government mandated that airports screen all luggage, some airports had to set them up by the ticket areas," said Chuck Cannon, a spokesman for Denver International. "We just took out some of the old system that had never become operational. We had the space."