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United axes troubled baggage system at Denver airport

The complicated system never worked as designed

By Todd R. Weiss
June 10, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - After more than a decade of trying to make Denver International Airport's troubled $230 million computerized baggage-handling system work as designed, United Air Lines Inc. is giving up on the failed project.
"It's never worked up to its potential," said United spokesman Jeff Green. "We've spent enormous amounts of money over the last decade" to try to get it working, but the only parts of the system that operate properly are for luggage heading out of Denver on United and for some baggage transfers between flights, he said. The system has never been able to process luggage from flights arriving at the airport.
That's a far cry from the promise of the high-tech, computerized baggage handling system envisioned for the airport, which opened in 1995. The system was designed to use PCs and thousands of remote-controlled carts that operate on a 21-mile-long track that is mostly underground. The carts move along the track, carrying luggage from check-in counters to sorting areas and then straight to the flights waiting at airport gates. Each piece of baggage has a special bar-coded tag attached when it's checked in to help track the luggage along its journey through the airport.
The system was designed and built by BAE Automated Systems Inc. in Carrollton, Texas, which in June 2003 was acquired by G&T Conveyor Co. in Tavares, Fla. A spokesman for G&T declined to comment on the matter, saying that his company acquired only some assets from BAE and that the vendor no longer exists.
Bruce Webster, principal of Webster & Associates LLC, a Washington-based consulting company that works with companies on troubled IT projects, said the decision by United came years too late. "There are a few lessons that large companies just don't seem to learn," he said. "The first lesson is that the best way to build a large, complex system is to evolve it from a small system that works. No one bothered to get a small system up and running in the first place -- they went for the big bang."
But "once the system gets to a certain point," he said, "there is an attitude that the project is too big to fail, that 'we have to make it work now.' There is an unwillingness in upper management to believe that things are as bad as they are."
Mark Keil, a professor of computer information systems at Georgia State University in Atlanta and a researcher on failed IT projects, said the plug should have been pulled in 1994, when the system failed to work as designed.
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