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Denver International Airport baggage screening breakdown blocked 2,000 bags from flights

Denver International Airport engineers scrambling to sort out a baggage-screening breakdown, which kept about 2,000 bags from reaching their flights and delayed travelers on Sunday, identified a software glitch related to baggage numbering on Monday — the latest of recurring bag system problems at DIA.

DIA and airline staffers, aided by federal Transportation Security Administration crews with dogs, manually screened and hauled bags between 8:30 a.m. and the resumption of “normal” operations around 4 p.m. Sunday.

“We think we have identified the smoking gun, which was a software glitch,” DIA’s senior vice president for operations Sara Marquez said Monday afternoon.

The DIA bag screening system uses numbering — a numeral and a bar code — assigned to each bag. These determine a bag’s route through the screening process, which includes “security-sensitive” processes such as checking for explosives, Marquez said.

The malfunctioning software, dating to 2018, led to a situation where the east side screening systems at DIA ran properly while “the west side did not,” she said.

Flight delays directly linked to the breakdown were limited to 19, all involving United Airlines, officials said Monday evening.

Typically, 1,700 to 2,000 flights a day arrive and depart from DIA. According to FlightAware monitoring data, 460 flights at DIA were delayed and 23 were canceled on Sunday — down from 528 delays and 31 cancellations on Saturday. On Monday at 1:15 p.m., DIA had 119 delays and four cancellations.

“There were about 2,000 bags that failed to load on flights,” DIA spokesman Michael Konopasek said, adding that 40,000 bags moved through the system.

DIA has received more than $123 million in federal grants for modernizing its baggage handling system, which originally relied on conveyor belts and explosives detection systems dating to 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. An overall modernization project, with estimated costs of around $500 million, has begun. The overhauled system being installed relies on “smart” carts that carry bags along “dumb” tracks — capable of processing millions of bags a month.

As more travelers move through DIA — now around 78 million a year — airport crews have been hard-pressed to prevent breakdowns.

The airport opened in 1995 and was designed with a capacity for 50 million travelers a year. The modernized baggage system will be able to handle bags for a projected flow of 100 million travelers a year before 2027, Marquez said.

On Jan. 7, a problem that DIA officials described as “a mechanical issue” led to a baggage handling breakdown that contributed to hundreds of flight delays and worsened snowstorm-related backlogs. Denver airport crews worked with airlines to process travelers’ bags at airline ticket counters and, as on Sunday, the city relied on police and TSA dogs in a scramble to process backlogged bags.

“We really value all our customers who come through Denver,” Marquez said. “I want to express my sincerest apologies if customers were impacted. We tried to manage this incident as best as possible.”

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