Failed by a glitzy, high-tech baggage system that has twice delayed opening of its new airport, the city will spend more money to build a low-tech alternative - the old-fashioned conveyor belt.
"The airport is a reality; it's there. It's a $3 billion facility and it needs to work," Mayor Wellington Webb said today on CBS.The debut of the new $3.7 billion Denver International Airport has been delayed four times since October, twice because of problems with the $193 million automated baggage handling system. The underground, computer-driven railroad network would be the first of its kind in the United States - if it ever works.
Webb announced Thursday that the city will construct a $50 million baggage system similar to those in most airports, using conveyor belts, tractor-like tugs and carts.
Since May 15, the last scheduled opening, the city has lost $1 million a day in maintenance and operations costs and interest payments on revenue bonds. The city is still served by its old Stapleton International Airport.
"Considering the amount of time in delays in bringing the automated system on board, $50 million is a lot cheaper than paying $33 million a month (in interest) . . . in having a $3 billion airport sit idle," Webb said.
United Airlines, the city's largest air carrier, expressed concern the backup system would not be able to move bags to planes fast enough. The automated system would do it in under 10 minutes, and the backup system will take twice as long.
Airline officials planned to meet with city officials after studying the question further. If all else fails, United Senior Vice President Stephen Steers said, the company might take the matter to court, noting its contract guarantees the automated baggage system.
The mayor did not say when the conventional baggage-mover would be finished or when the airport might open.
Crews will continue to work on the automated system, and when it is fixed, the conveyor belt system will be kept as a backup.
A spokeswoman for the Dallas-based BAE Automated Systems Inc., which designed and constructed the automated system, declined to comment Thursday.