DIA aims for no meltdown this winter; More snow-removal equipment, new airline procedures in place

In the years before DIA opened, city officials touted the airport as an all-weather marvel capable of operating normally "in anything short of a total whiteout." Even during a blizzard, they boasted, Denver International Airport would run as...

DIA pins part of the problem on the sheer severity and timing of the storms, which hit during the busy holiday season when planes were already packed. That meant there was little wiggle room to accommodate passengers on other flights.

But the airport also admits it was unprepared for a blizzard of that magnitude, in large part because it had put snow-removal efforts on the back burner while facing budget cuts after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"There were a variety of dynamics going on . . . and the dots weren't connected," DIA's Kinney said. "In the post-9/11 environment, uncertainty reigned. Fiscal conservation was paramount, and we had had mild winters. We were lulled into a false sense (of security). We didn't feel it was an issue that needed to be addressed, given the very limited financial resources available."

DIA also didn't modify its snow plan to keep up with growth. Annual passenger traffic at DIA rocketed 26 percent from 2003 through 2006, while the number of takeoffs and landings at the airport soared 33 percent.

"The airport got caught with its plow down," said Evergreen aviation consultant Mike Boyd. "I think they had just kind of skated by for years hoping nothing like this would happen. But I can tell you that they will never again have a situation where the sun comes up and they can't open the airport for hours. They won't let it happen again."

Lessons brought changes

Indeed, DIA has overhauled its snow plan, incorporating some recommendations made by a consultant who conducted a thorough study.

The new strategy involves a different way of looking at snow removal, viewing the airport's parts together.

"We need to look at this as a system and not separate components," as the airport had in the past, said Ruth Rodriguez, DIA's deputy manager of aviation maintenance and engineering.

The airport has rearranged how and where it deploys workers and top-level decision-makers to ensure that it can adapt to changing conditions and communicate effectively. It has developed new policies to work more closely with the Federal Aviation Administration - locally, regionally and nationally - as well as with airlines and the Regional Transportation District. It now has a crew dedicated to the east side of the airfield and one reserved for the west side, which offers a more focused, efficient approach. And it has employees who will focus on certain areas such as parking lots, rather than jumping around to different spots.

DIA also is installing software that gives certain employees up-to-date data about airport conditions.

"This is real-time information on security initiatives, flight schedules, snow-removal efforts, irregularities on the airfield," Kinney said. "It's all the information that people would need to make decisions."

Another key part of its revamped plan includes additional workers and equipment to keep runways, parking lots, roads and taxiways open.

DIA has doubled the number of workers and equipment such as plows and blowers available for snow-related tasks. It also is bringing on a new type of machine - snow melters - that are more efficient than plows because the snow doesn't have to be hauled away.

Airport officials say that, taken together, the moves will minimize recovery time and help DIA operate as predictably as possible in any weather.

"This was an opportunity for everyone to take a hard look at the processes, procedures and programs and see if they reflect today's challenges," Kinney said. "I think everyone made substantial changes."

Airlines change strategy, too

The airlines also have taken some dramatic steps, although not all of the changes are a direct result of last winter's problems.

Frontier, for instance, has boosted its customer service staff by 16.5 percent, particularly at gates and check-in counters. It also has increased its ticketing areas, adding new counters, curbside desks and automated kiosks.

Perhaps its biggest move is implementing new software that will automatically re-book customers whose flights were canceled. The airline expects that the change will dramatically reduce lines and phone calls when there are cancellations, as customers won't have to speak with someone to get on another flight. They can print out their boarding passes for the new flight from one of the company's check-in kiosks or from home.

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