Denver International: Dumb Idea?

May 24, 1994

It's easy to poke fun at the repeated failure to open Denver's new $3.2 billion mega-airport. But it's just as easy to miss the point of what has so far been a monumental fiasco. The project is eight months behind schedule, $1.5 billion over budget and costs $1 million a day in debt service without earning a penny. When it finally opens -- no one is now foolhardy enough to predict a date -- Denver International Airport will not handle nearly the initial traffic predicted when it was planned.

So is DIA the Dumbest Idea Anywhere, as a local newspaper columnist dubbed it? Depends on the yardstick applied. By the standards of the halcyon '80s, the go-go years of U.S. air travel, the airport will not meet original forecasts for decades to come -- if ever. It was intended to be a giant continental hub, with flights arriving from all points of the compass to exchange long-distance passengers. Unhappily, it was built just as the hub-and-spoke era of airline routing may be coming to an end. Deregulation of the airlines has greatly enhanced traffic, but it has also crippled some of the carriers. The survivors are more interested in short-haul, point-to-point service of the type that made Southwest Airlines so successful.

The major reason DIA has postponed its opening four times is its sophisticated, computerized, high-speed baggage system. It is supposed to zip baggage on tracks from check-in to plane-side in record time. But it keeps breaking down. During the planning and construction process, a system that was originally supposed to serve just one airline was expanded to cover the whole airport, which it is plainly not yet able to accomplish. It is a valuable reminder that computers and the wizards who design and run them are vulnerable to hubris -- at a time when many in U.S. government and industry are touting them as panaceas.

In the immediate future the DIA fiasco can prove harmful to some politicians' health as well as cause serious problems for United Airlines, which will be its principal tenant. One conspicuous target is the former mayor of Denver who more than anyone pushed through the giant project: Federico Pena, now U.S. Transportation secretary.

But the airport will open -- someday. And it will generate traffic, as new airports always do -- eventually. Few major airports are instant successes: witness Baltimore-Washington International or Dulles or Dallas-Fort Worth. But it will be well into the 21st century before Denverites learn whether DIA was more than a dumb idea.

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