Denver airport falls behind on maintenance for aging facility

It’s been a frequent occurrence for years at Denver International Airport: Out-of-order escalators and moving walkways gum up the flow of crowds. Broken fixtures in bathrooms greet arriving passengers.

The once-gleaming airport has lost its luster, for some, even as there’s evidence of billions of dollars being spent in other ways.

Twenty-six years after DIA opened, it’s fallen behind on maintaining its original buildings and the tens of thousands of pieces of equipment, vehicles, machinery and moving parts that keep the airport running.

A recent city audit and documents reviewed by The Denver Post show that the airport, nearly eight years into an effort to establish a preventive maintenance program, is not devoting nearly the attention or resources to the most basic tasks of upkeep as it has to recent projects bringing major renovations and expansions.

The audit, released last month, characterized DIA as stuck on a reactive footing when it comes to maintenance. That approach has relegated thousands of routine inspections, check-ups and preventive work to a backlog list that in the last three years has grown to more than 7,000 items, ranging from building systems and parking lots to escalators and other large equipment.

The maintenance team is chronically understaffed, with vacancies in 23% of 490 positions, excluding snow removal. Those workers have been diverted often for emergency repairs, leaving simple — but potentially important — routine inspections for another day. Auditors wrote that the dynamic “may ultimately result in assets failing before the end of their expected life,” potentially costing the airport big for early replacements.

The airport doesn’t adequately plan or budget for preventive maintenance, auditors found. They also identified lapses in oversight of lucrative contracts for maintenance of the underground concourse train and more than 300 aging escalators, elevators and moving walkways that break down thousands of times a year.

As of 2016, according to a budget request memo reviewed by The Post, fewer than half of an estimated 60,000 assets had been logged into DIA’s maintenance tracking system. Thousands of items in the system lacked maintenance schedules.

Since then, DIA officials say, they have added employees to the asset management team. But the audit casts doubt that the team is as robust as needed.

Though DIA pays for its largest expansion projects and maintenance activities out of different budgets — with projects relying largely on borrowing — the seeming disparity is glaring to some outside observers, including the city’s elected auditor, Tim O’Brien.

“Denver International Airport is in the midst of a big project to update and expand the Great Hall and terminals, but at the same time, the assets the airport already owns need maintenance and better tracking,” O’Brien said when he released his office’s audit of the airport’s capital assets program.

While DIA officials tangled with auditors over a couple of their recommendations geared toward information tracking, they said others mirrored their own goals. In an interview, Scott Morrissey, who oversees asset management as senior vice president of sustainability, cited substantial progress already made in planning and coordination, especially since a consultant in 2018 helped DIA create a strategic asset management plan.

The team doing much of that work was created in 2013 and now has the equivalent of 17 full-time employees, Morrissey said.

The preventive maintenance program isn’t there yet, he acknowledged.

“What we’re trying to do through the strategic management plan is really get to that best-in-class level, where we are managing our assets across that entire lifecycle,” Morrissey said.

Asset management is separate from the much larger maintenance department that carries out the inspections and repairs. Both play key roles in caring for a huge swath of DIA’s capital assets, which were valued on its balance sheet at $4.2 billion at the end of 2019.

Major focus on big projects

Grand designs for projects long have dominated CEO Kim Day’s agenda, from the Westin hotel and transit center, built adjacent to the terminal early in the decade, to the Great Hall terminal renovation and concourse expansions now underway. Part of a $3.5 billion capital program, the recent projects were launched to keep up with passenger traffic that had been surging prior to the pandemic, making DIA the nation’s fifth-busiest airport.

A DIA spokeswoman said the projects did not shift focus away from maintenance.

“We go through a whole process all the time to prioritize the most important projects for our capital improvement plan and also through an annual budgeting process for maintenance,” Stacey Stegman said. “I guess the bigger idea is, show me an organization that doesn’t have a list and a backlog of deferred maintenance — because there always is one, and there are varying levels of it.”

Some of that is strategic, she said, since the terminal renovation and other projects wrap in fixes for aging equipment or spaces that otherwise would be prioritized for maintenance sooner.

That the auditor found DIA was behind on maintenance and periodic inspections drew laments from the top official who handed the job off to Day in 2008. Turner West, long retired, oversaw airport maintenance before becoming manager of aviation.

Even years later, he said, neighbors in Denver who think he’s still associated with DIA complain to him about their recent experiences navigating the airport.

“There is an old adage: Maintenance is sort of a pay-me-now or pay-me-later thing,” West said . “You can cut staff and you can cut all the expenses, but there’s one thing it doesn’t do, and that is cut the need for maintenance.”

Thomas Long, an associate professor of airport management at Central Washington University, agreed. He said airports have preventive maintenance programs of varying rigor, but gaining a strong grip on upkeep becomes more important the larger the operation. Before teaching, he worked as the director of several smaller commercial airports.

“Anytime you’re reactive instead of proactive, it’s going to cost you much more in the long run,” Long said.

Day, appointed or kept on by two Denver mayors, has brought an expansionist mindset to the job that is rooted in her background as an architect on big projects. Before DIA, she headed Los Angeles World Airports.

She’s grown DIA as an economic engine, but her attention to detail on its projects also has resulted in occasional tension with contractors. That includes claims of micromanagement — disputed by Day — lodged by the first Great Hall contracting team before its termination in 2019.

“Is this high on our priority list?”

The length of the maintenance and inspection backlog stood out in the audit for Denver City Councilman Kevin Flynn, who chairs the business and aviation committee and has scrutinized DIA’s growth projects.

“We have to treat it like a 30-year-old asset,” he said of DIA, noting that escalators and other large equipment were installed well before the 1995 opening. “They’ve been in constant use, and so it’s urgent that we recognize the need to dig down deeper on maintenance to keep things running if we’re going to be a facility that works again for 69 to 70 million people (a year) after travel returns after COVID. …

“The question I have after reading the audit is, is this high on our priority list?”

Morrissey, the DIA senior vice president, says the airport’s gains on maintenance include better scheduling and making it easier for technicians to log new and missing items into its tracking system, called Maximo. A recent initiative has organized monthly cross-team discussions to make sure equipment at gates is properly serving airlines.

DIA also has increased the focus on maintenance in contracts with the companies hired to maintain conveyances and the concourse train, paying extra to have more dedicated staffers on site and spare parts on reserve.

Tracking data provided by DIA shows some improvement since the latest conveyance contract took effect in September. Elevators, escalators and moving walkways were out of order between 1.2% and 2.2% of the time during the last four months of 2020, slightly less often than they were during the first eight months of the year.

They’re supposed to be up and running 99% of the time under the $8.6 million-a-year contract. A spokeswoman said the contractor, ThyssenKrupp Elevator, met that standard overall in December — even as it was charged $38,600 in penalties for falling below the threshold for three dozen units.

DIA has a separate long-term contract for ongoing work to refurbish the conveyances so they break down less often.

Still, the city audit characterizes DIA’s overall preventive maintenance program as too ad hoc.

“The airport does not have a comprehensive preventive maintenance program and cannot perform accurate analyses to effectively budget for the program,” the auditors wrote.

DIA agrees to review staffing, budget

In his audit response, DIA chief operating officer Chris McLaughlin agreed to recommendations that include conducting a staffing-needs study, developing clearer protocols and improving the budgeting process for maintenance.

On the maintenance side, staffing information provided to The Post by DIA shows 111 open positions out of 490. Among the vacant positions: Six of 14 carpenter jobs, nine of 47 electrician jobs, 13 of 52 fleet technician jobs, six of 16 facility maintenance technician jobs, four of 12 positions for heating and ventilation system mechanics, and seven of 15 plumber positions.

Asked why so many are vacant, a DIA spokeswoman said the airport long has faced competition with the higher-paying private sector. More recently, the city’s pandemic-induced hiring freeze has provided another hurdle.

That staffing disparity is among DIA’s big challenges ahead, but Morrissey expressed optimism the airport was on the right track.

“The kinds of conversations that we’re talking about are happening at a much more strategic level than they were — certainly eight years ago, but even five or six years ago,” he said. “That, in my mind, is the mark that we’re doing this right. … We’re in a better position to be strategic about replacement and not waiting for some kind of catastrophic failure.”

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