The airport that refuses to take off: 'Frederico's dollars 3bn folly', twice the size of Manhattan, languishes in the grip of a crazed, roller-coaster bag-handling system

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The Independent Online
ON THE sun-blasted concrete outside, the 'lizard tongues' - flexible conveyors designed to reach out to the bellies of arriving aircraft to syphon out the baggage - loll motionless, starved of their prey. Inside, indicator boards flicker details of fictitious flights to Fresno and Washington.

Moving walkways glide silently, with no one on them. And from the bowels of a central atrium that is a mock-up of an Aztec garden, a barrel-organ jingle vainly announces the departure of a subway train to the main terminal a mile away.

This is Concourse C at Denver International Airport (DIA) one day last week. All around lies evidence of the boldest and most innovative of public works projects recently undertaken in America. Rising out of the high plains to the east of Denver, it is destined to be the world's largest airport - bigger in area than the city of San Francisco and twice the size of Manhattan. Looming above is its outstanding design feature: the soaring, tented roof of the main terminal that mimics the white peaks of the Rocky Mountain range to the west.

Almost as spectacular, however, is the political embarrassment the project is bringing to the city.

They cannot get it open. A day last October was first set by the city mayor, Wellington Webb. Since then, three other deadlines have been missed, the latest of which was to have been today. In announcing the most recent delay, Mayor Webb dared not even suggest when aeroplanes might actually land here.

In the meantime, doubts are rapidly multiplying as to whether the new facility, advertised as the only solution to overcrowding at Denver's existing Stapleton Airport, was ever really necessary. Its original cost estimate of dollars 1.7bn (pounds 1.1bn) has almost doubled, while forecasts for growth in passenger traffic have been revised sharply downwards. And in March, Continental Airlines, the second biggest carrier in Denver, announced a two-thirds reduction in flights.

As if to rub salt into the wound, Standard & Poors, the Wall Street rating agency, confirmed last week that it was downgrading the bonds issued by the city to fund Denver International's development to a humiliating 'junk-bond' status, apparently reflecting fears that, even when it does open, the airport may not become profitable quickly enough to pay off investors. Current failure to open the airport is costing the city and the airlines a total of dollars 500,000 a day.

Michael Boyd, a local aviation consultant and a long-time opponent of the airport, predicts that it will be at least 15 years before it becomes economically viable. 'We've built an airport for the 1980s when we're going into the 21st century,' he said last week. 'It's too big, and it doesn't fit the airlines' needs.' Most jarring, perhaps, is its grandiose ostentation at a time when most US airlines are in dire financial trouble and trying to promote new, no-frills services. 'I'm offended by the whole thing,' says Gene Amole, a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News, who also opposed DIA from the start and favoured expansion at Stapleton. 'What this has really been is a welfare project for the rich - for the investment bankers, for the power company people and so on. Now it's cover-your-ass time and everyone is going to blame everyone else.'

Some of that blame is being transferred back to the former mayor of Denver, who initiated the project in 1985, Frederico Pena, now Transportation Secretary in the Clinton administration. His name is given to the dual ribbon of concrete, Pena Boulevard, that covers the last 10 miles of the 24-mile journey from city to terminal. Detractors like to call the airport 'Frederico's Folly', or DOA - Dead on Arrival. Most of the heat, however, is being taken by a small Texas-based company, BAE Automated Systems, which barely two years ago took on the task of installing a single, fully computerised baggage-handling system for the new airport. The company also happens to be British-owned, as part of the huge BTR conglomerate. Recently it won the contract for the construction of a system similar to the one in Denver, though smaller, to transfer bags between Terminals 1 and 4 at Heathrow.

It has been this system's unpredictable antics that have made the opening of DIA impossible. Untried anywhere else in the world, at least on such a huge scale, it aims to move luggage - including golf bags and skis - between the main terminal and the 80 different gates in a fast-moving fleet of 'telecars' - plastic bins that will travel at up to 19mph on 20 miles of metal track.

Viewed beneath one of the concourses during tests last week, the system resembles a crazed roller-coaster ride in miniature. Every item of baggage is computer-coded and, in theory, a network of on-track sensors will guide each one to its destination before its owner arrives. Until now, however, every full-blown try-out of the system has ended in calamity. Typically, telecars have tended to crash into one another as bottlenecks have occurred, or have been totally misdirected. On one mortifying day for BAE last winter, when local TV cameras had been invited to film a first test using real baggage, the whole works ran amok.

Telecars were derailed and suitcases sent flying. A few burst open, catapulting women's underwear and other garments skywards. The whole, unedifying spectacle was, of course, gleefully broadcast on the evening news programmes.

While tests continue, BAE defends itself, claiming that it was hampered by last-minute lay-out changes ordered by the airlines and a completion deadline that was over-optimistic from the start. Officials of BAE and the airport say they remain confident that, given time, the system will be made to work.

Defenders of DIA insist that, in the long term, delays caused by the baggage system are of no significance.

'It's a blip, a short-term thing that in 10 or 15 years from now will not even be noticeable,' says Tucker Hart Adams, chief economist at the Colorado National Bank. The decision to build DIA, she argues, will prove to be 'the most important economic decision taken in this state in this century'.

Witness the daring of the airport's design, and it is hard not to hope that Ms Hart Adams is right. It is worth remembering what sceptics said of the current airport when it was commissioned by Ben Stapleton, when he was Denver's mayor seven decades ago. They deplored its great distance from downtown - seven miles - and its extravagance. They called it 'Stapleton's Folly'.

(Photograph omitted)