Baggage glitches delay Denver airport debut

March 18, 1994|By New York Times News Service

DALLAS -- If all BAE Automated Systems had to do was design a system to whiz luggage around a suburban warehouse here, with a whir and a clicketyclack, its record would be perfect. Or if it had to handle 100 bags a minute, as it does for United Airlines in San Francisco, it would have suffered no embarrassments.

But in Denver, BAE is now struggling to coax 4,000 automated baggage carts run by 100 computers and a web of motors and radio transponders into carrying 1,400 bags a minute.

Several weeks ago, in a test of what will be the nation's largest baggage-handling system, bags went flying, tumbling and bursting open, with some sliced in half -- that is, when the system consented to run at all. Fortunately, the bags did not belong to anyone.

As a result, the new Denver airport failed last week to meet its planned opening, which had already been delayed from October because of several changes of plans among other reasons.

Airlines that have financed the $3.2 billion airport estimate their losses in the tens of millions.

Now comes the finger-pointing, and executives of BAE, based in Carrollton, Texas, a Dallas suburb, are on the hot seat.

"I've become a media star, much against my wishes," said Gene Di Fonso, BAE's president and chief executive, who, articulate but jowly, is no Dan Rather. "Talk shows, television interviews, you name it."

His point is simply that "it is not BAE's fault that the Denver airport has not opened on March 9." After all, Denver officials kept changing their plans, left too little time for testing, failed to fix electrical flaws and then turned the whole system over to inexperienced managers -- accusations city officials only partly deny.

The company readily agrees that its system was not ready, but says the airport was not ready either.

Denver officials said yesterday that they had been ready to open the airport on time. "The baggage system is the spine of the airport," Michael Dino, an assistant to the Denver mayor, said in a telephone interview. "If the baggage system had been in place, we would have opened."

He said that BAE and the city shared responsibility for the delays, noting that BAE failed to solve several software and mechanical problems by last week.

In a brave new world of robots and computers, do gremlins still have dominion? Can a smudged bar code on a baggage tag or worker leaning on the wrong button actually scramble the whole baggage system, delaying flights from coast to coast?

"The answer is yes," said Peter Neumann, the founder and manager of Risks Digest, an Internet computer network forum on computer security and reliability. "You could, in fact, have a dramatic effect on air traffic around the country just by having an accidental screw-up."

The goal now is to open Denver International Airport on May 15, when the baggage system will be tested and proved, Mr. Di Fonso said, with backup systems and room for error. Tight computer security will prevent any accidental breakdowns and sabotage.

And Mr. Di Fonso says he has few regrets about venturing into Denver. "Who would turn down a $193 million contract?" he said. "You'd expect to have a little trouble for that kind of money."

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