January 5, 2007

Hype & the Denver International Airport

I heard the hype while living in Denver nearly 20 years ago. $2.5 billion (turned into $5 billion) was necessary to avoid all of the current airport's problems during snowstorms. Mayer Federico Pena lead the charge with his reward coming later - the highway to the new airport (DIA) is named "Pena Boulevard".

Mike Boyd tells the "rest of the story" in the Grinch Comes Clean:
"All Weather Airport? Oh, That Was Just 'Hype'..." ...Along With Most Of The Other Stuff DIA PromisThis Christmas, it wasn't just chestnuts that got roasted on an open fire. Denver's "all-weather" airport, the one that was built to unclog the Western skies, the one that was going to be the glorious technological beacon for all future airports, got roasted big-time in the national media. Justifiably.

Denver International got cooked on something called "the truth."

For almost two days before Christmas, the airport was shut down due to snow. At most times of the year, and at most other airports, this would have been not much more than a page three human interest story, with interviews of passengers stranded like refugees in a big terminal, being asked really deep questions, like, "How long have you been standing in line?" or "When do you think you'll get home?" Or, "Gee, you gotta lot of luggage there." Anything to fill a 90-second piece that's been done dozens of times before.
But this wasn't just any time of the year. And it wasn't at just any airport. First, it was an event that messed up the Holidays to some degree for perhaps as many as 100,000 people. That meant there were interviews with stranded soldiers from Iraq, their precious leave daysdia2.JPG (13614 bytes) being consumed by a closed airport. Then there were the perfunctory pictures of bewildered young families stuck in the terminal, surrounded by despondent little kids fearful of missing Santa Claus, holding the package containing the ThighMaster they were going to give Grandma for Christmas. High profile, newsworthy stuff.

Second, it took place at an airport that was built on the promise that it would never happen. DIA had repeatedly told the world that it would free mankind once and for all of the scourge of flight delays. Mystical DIA, they promised, would handle any - that's right - any weather. No exceptions. Any weather. And when they said all this, they were dead serious and took condescending shots at any infidel who would question it.

A couple of notable quotes from the days when the City was building DIA. These from 1992, for example:

"It's the world's first all-weather airport. We will be able to operate as well in a in a blizzard as Stapleton does on a sunny day..."

or, how about this:

"...We can still land 90 planes per hour in a blizzard..."

In fact, these wonderous promises were made by DIA officials and City politicians as the foundational reason to build this magic new $2.5 billion - now, over $5 billion - airport for the Mile-High City. "Weather delays will be a thing of the past," one of the breathless promo pieces said. Another, aimed at the bond houses that were to finance this thing, claimed, "An all-weather airport, capable of landing three streams of aircraft, no matter how bad the weather..."

In a blizzard? Since there are no arrest records indicating these people were smokingsnakeoil2.JPG (11535 bytes) funny cigarettes or having Timothy O'Leary parties, it's clear that they were saying this stuff with a straight, sober face in an attempt to claim something that they knew wasn't possible nor true. In English, it's called a lie.

At the time, The Boyd Group and a few others went on record, pointing out that, unless they could get Jesus to be a sub on the engineering contract, the chances of DIA being "all-weather" were zero to none.

Aviation Cognoscenti: The Emperor's New Runways. But this was a billion-dollar project, and there was lot of money to be made. So, virtually nobody else in the aviation industry - not the alphabet groups, not the FAA, not even the aviation media, dared say anything. They wanted to remain politically correct.

They all knew, or should have known, that the "all-weather" claims, as well as many others concocted to support the project, were simply not true. But they said nothing.

Perfect Storm: Snow. No Santa. Four Networks. And A Dumb DIA PR Stunt. Of course, DIA has closed on many occasions due to weather. A couple of times, "officially" closed, and on a lot more occasions, functionally closed when airlines simply couldn't operate, yet the bureaucrats would claim DIA was "open" - it was just those silly airlines who refused to land on runways covered with snow, or where they couldn't taxi to the gates. Or in dangerous wind-shear conditions. Or not operating because of those dumb consumers who couldn't get to the airport because the meandering 12-mile access road was impassible and unplowed.

In those instances, nobody much noticed. But then came The Nightmare Before Christmas. From a public relations standpoint, it was DIA's Perfect Storm.

As would be expected, when DIA shut down, the national media descended to do the usual perfunctory Grandma-got-run-over-by-a-flight-delay stories. But then they noticed three things that didn't make sense.

The first was the actual amount of snow that it took to close the airport in relation to it's all weather, better-than-any-other-airport-in-bad-weather claims. Unlike the rest of the region, which saw in some cases almost four feet of white stuff, DIA got 19 to 22 inches, depending on the source. Even with wind, it was neither a 100-year storm, nor of a size particularly unheard of in Colorado. The second thing that got their attention was DIA's announcement that it would not open for almost 24 hours after the last flake had fallen and the bright Rocky Mountain sun came out. Almost a full day. This at America's supposedly most technologically-advanced airport. Red flags went up.

But the third thing that got the media's investigative juices into hyper-drive was when DIA's PR staff opened their mouths and started spitting absurd excuses in all directions. The reasons for the delay in re-opening, they explained confidently and condescendingly, were the huge snow drifts - at first, claimed to be seven feet high, and later the drifts grew in the press statements like Pinocchio's nose to a whopping 12 feet. With a straight face, they told this to network reporters who had just easily traversed the all-four-lanes-open access road, with little or no evidence of such Himalayan-like snow drifts.

Adding to the intrigue, DIA's PR staff arrogantly claimed that the airport had done everything perfectly - in fact, they said they had no reason to change anything in the future. The PR stunts became more silly when they couldn't answer repeated questions regarding why the 12-mile access freeway was clear and open and free of 12-foot drifts, yet all six of DIA's runways were still closed, its ramp areas were clogged with snow, and it couldn't operate for nearly a day after the weather had cleared.pino2.JPG (26150 bytes)

Looking around the terminal, seeing hundreds of people stranded, soldiers from Iraq spending their holiday leave sitting on the floor in their desert fatigues, and passengers around the country messed up due to 20 inches of snow at a $5 billion facility that was supposedly going to do away with weather delays, and things just didn't add up.

The media smelled a cover-up, which is like waving a t-bone steak in front of a hungry Rottweiler.

If They'd Just Told The Truth Right Off... The truth was that, as humans do sometimes, somebody dropped the ball and DIA found itself without a plan to handle a 20-inch snowstorm. A screw-up. But instead of simply coming out with the hard facts, the airport PR hacks went into their usual tell 'em anything mode, a technique that's worked well in the past, but backfired badly this time. By the time the airport finally opened, DIA's PR department had less credibility than Saddam Hussein as a candidate for term life insurance.

But finally, the intense national coverage led the airport to come clean. They announced at a press conference that indeed, they didn't have an adequate snow-management plan, and - countering their original contentions of operational perfection - they were even going to hire a "snow consultant" to fix things, as opposed to relying on the snow job its PR people were providing.

But the damage was done - Denver was splattered all over the national news as an airport to avoid if there is any chance of bad weather.

A Murder-Suicide Pact In The Works?. And that brings us back to the all-weather claim made by DIA and tacitly supported by a host of financial hangers-on, in order to prove the need for the new airport.

After being repeatedly badgered by reporters on the all-weather claim, including the two quotes above, the Airport's long-time chief spokesperson finally blurted out:

"... I'd like to choke the person who came up with that (all-weather) term..."

Within hours, the Denver media dug up the intended strangle victim. Oops. Guess who was behind those all-encompassing quotes? Put it this way - we now have Denver's first pre-announced murder-suicide. Grab your trachea, guy, and squeeze vigorously.

But it gets better.

All Those Great Promises? Oh, Never Mind. The real story was when this same chief DIA PR official was questioned on a radio talk show on December 28th about the original promises and claims made by the City of Denver, its officials, and DIA supporters in order to "prove" a new airport was needed.

The host asked why DIA and the City had made claims for the airport that they knew not to be within several zip codes of being accurate. The PR guy's response was clear.

Yes, of course, he admitted, the airport and the City used what he termed as "hype" and "hyperbole" to sell the need for a new airport. They did so, he noted, to get public support. Basically, he admitted that DIA put out outlandish projections, including the all-weather jive, to mislead the public.

Cutting to the chase, he admitted that they lied.

When asked why public officials would say things they knew not to be true, he took the Nuremberg defense. The public officials were just following orders. At the time of construction, those would be coming from none other than Federico Pena, who went on to greater heights of hyperbole, being responsible as DOT Secretary for the ValuJet FAA cover-up that killed 110 people.

Lots of "Hype" & "Hyperbole" Behind DIA. We could get into the other jive-lie claims - like how the new airport would win new nonstops to Asia (topographic, operational and demographic issues essentially preclude it) or how it would increase service for smaller airports in the region (ask the smaller communities in the area that lost service from one of two hubbing carriers) or the ridiculous concocted nonsense that DIA would attract new service from points all over Europe. (Today, DIA has nonstops to three European points, far from the dozen or so, with over 50 weekly departures, that the airport was supposed to magically attract by 1993.) Or the "hyperbole" that Stapleton couldn't be expanded to handle future growth. (The airport's 1988 EIS outlined growth potential to over 70 million passengers.) No, it didn't default on its bonds, at least not yet, but it has been re-financed a number of times, and, according to the former head of the SEC, it loses money. And the delay stuff? Check out the first three years of operations. Even since then, it's nothing spectacular. Weather delays are not a thing of the past.

There's lots more, but now, they've admitted that we can't trust any of the claims on which $5 billion's been spent to date.

But It Exists. So They Need To Be Honest Going Forward. DIA is here. It's operating. And it needs to be supported.

But that doesn't change the fact that it was built on lies and doctored data that were obvious at the time, but conveniently ignored by a lot of aviation sectors who knew better. Now that they've come clean, it's a lesson that needs to be learned.

We're proud that The Boyd Group was among the few in the consulting field that pointed out these things from the start. Too bad some of our colleagues in the business were afraid to stand up lest they offend a politician or lose out on some business.

The nation needs more airport capacity. But when snake oil is needed to support a given project, it's a political boondoggle, not a capacity project.

(c) 2007, The Boyd Group/ASRC, Inc. All Rights Reserved Posted by James Zellmer at January 5, 2007 7:00 PM | Subscribe to this site via RSS:
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