Dysfunctional decision making is the poison that kills technology projects and the Denver Airport Baggage System project in the 1990’s is a classic example. Although several case studies have been written about the Denver project, the following paper re-examines the case by looking at the key decisions that set the project on the path to disaster and the forces behind those decisions.
What was to be the world’s largest automated airport baggage handling system, became a classic story in how technology projects can go wrong. Faced with the need for greater airport capacity, the city of Denver elected to construct a new state of the art airport that would cement Denver’s position as an air transportation hub. Covering a land area of 140 Km2, the airport was to be the largest in the United States and have the capacity to handle more than 50m passengers annually [1,2]. The airport's baggage handling system was a critical component in the plan. By automating baggage handling, aircraft turnaround time was to be reduced to as little as 30 minutes . Faster turnaround meant more efficient operations and was a cornerstone of the airports competitive advantage. Despite the good intentions the plan rapidly dissolved as underestimation of the project’s complexity resulted in snowballing problems and public humiliation for everyone involved. Thanks mainly to problems with the baggage system, the airport’s opening was delayed by a full 16 months. Expenditure to maintain the empty airport and interest charges on construction loans cost the city of Denver $1.1M per day throughout the delay .
System at a glance:
1. 2. 3. 4. 88 airport gates in 3 concourses 17 miles of track and 5 miles of conveyor belts 3,100 standard carts + 450 oversized carts 14 million feet of wiring Network of more than 100 PC’s to control flow of carts 5,000 electric motors 2,700 photo cells, 400 radio receivers and 59 laser arrays
The embarrassing missteps along the way included an impromptu 5. demonstration of the system to the media which illustrated how the system crushed bags, disgorged content and how two carts 6. moving at high speed reacted when they crashed into each other 7. . When opening day finally arrived, the system was just a shadow of the original plan. Rather than automating all 3 concourses into one integrated system, the system was used in a single concourse, by a single airline and only for outbound flights . All other baggage handling was performed using simple conveyor belts plus a manual tug and trolley system that was hurriedly built when it became clear that the automated system would never achieve its goals.
Although the remnants of the system soldiered on for 10 years, the system never worked well and in August 2005, United Airlines announced that they would abandon the system completely . The $1 million per month maintenance costs exceeded the monthly cost of a manual tug and trolley system. © Copyright 2008 Calleam Consulting Ltd, all rights reserved
Denver Airport Baggage Handling System Case Study – Calleam Consulting
Chronology of events:
Denver International Airport (DIA) Baggage System Development Timeline [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6] Nov 1989 Oct 1990 Feb 1991 Jun 1991 Jun 1991 Summer 1991 Fall 1991 Early 1992 Apr 1992 Work starts on the construction of the airport City of Denver engages Breier Neidle Patrone Associates to analyse feasibility of building an integrated baggage system. Reports advises that complexity makes the proposition unfeasible Continental Airlines signs on and plans on using Denver as a hub United Airlines signs on and plans on using Concourse A as a hub United Airlines engages BAE Systems to build an automated baggage system for Concourse A. BAE was a world leader in the supply, installation and operation of baggage handling equipment Airport’s Project Management team recognizes that a baggage handling solution...