Why Do Projects Fail?

Denver Airport Baggage System Case Study

Read the full case study – Denver International Airport Baggage Handling System case study – or read the abstract below.


Denver International

Denver International

Originally billed as the most advanced system in the world, the baggage handling system at the new Denver International Airport was to become one of the most notorious examples of project failure.  Originally planned to automate the handling of baggage through the entire airport, the system proved to be far more complex than some had original believed.  The problems building the system resulted in the newly complete airport sitting idle for 16 months while engineers worked on getting the baggage system to work.

Denver Baggage Handling System

Denver Baggage Handling System

The delay added approximately $560M USD to the cost of the airport and became a feature article in Scientific American titled the Software’s Chronic Crisis.  At the end of the day, the system that was finally implemented was a shadow of what was originally planned.  Rather than integrating all three concourses into a single system, the system supported outbound flights on a single concourse only.  All other baggage was handled by a manual tug and trolley system that was hurriedly built when it became clear the automated system would never meet its goals.

Conveyor Belts

Conveyor Belts

Even the portion of the system that was implemented never functioned properly and in Aug 2005 the system was scrapped altogether.  The $1M monthly cost to maintain the system was outweighing the value the remaining parts of the system offered and using a manual system actually cut costs.

Contributing factors as reported in the press :
Underestimation of complexity.  Complex architecture.  Changes in requirements.  Underestimation of schedule and budget.  Dismissal of advice from experts.  Failure to build in backup or recovery process to handle situations in which part of the system failed.  The tendency of the system to enjoy eating people’s baggage.

Full case study :
For more information read the following in-depth analysis –
Denver International Airport Baggage Handling System case study

Related story :
In Apr 2008 British Airways & British Airports Authority encountered serious problems when Heathrow’s Terminal 5 opened.  Again Baggage system glitches were a major contributor to the problem.

Reference links :

  1. Denver Airport to mangle last bag
  2. The baggage system at Denver : prospects and lessons
  3. MSNBC on Denver’s Automated Baggage System

Other case studies :

  1. US Census Bureau – Field Data Collection Automation project