Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

It will likely not come as too much of a shock that I like airports. I’ve always been drawn to aviation; hence the 25-plus-year career as an Air Force officer. As a kid, my older brother and I would regularly go out to Detroit Metro Airport to just watch planes come and go. Back in those days, the late 1960s, we found the secret elevator to the control tower and called up to the controllers on duty to ask if we could visit. They often let us come up and watch them as they controlled aircraft and we’d be awed by the view. We’d also ask airline staff if we could go onboard an empty jet sitting at the gate, and quite often they allowed it. We toured quite a few cockpits and had some really interesting times. To this day, I always look up when I hear a jet, and I remain quite the aviation enthusiast. 

Which, of course, brings me to the Denver Metro bus and rail system…

As my regular reader (hi Jeff!) will likely recall, my twice-weekly commentaries usually focus on the more obscure and less flashy parts of governance. It is easy to, say, wax philosophic on the president or the governor. And those folks are important, to be sure. But I find the mechanics of governing to be quite interesting, and so my eye is often drawn to stories well down the masthead of the Colorado Politics website. One such story caught my eye this morning and it involves Colorado’s main airport, Denver International Airport, which triggered the above reflection on my rapidly receding youth.

If you fly from time to time, you likely noticed the many good people who work at DIA to keep your baggage properly routed, the bathrooms clean, and to keep those little carts that drive people around beep-beep-beeping their way through the concourses. And you may have also noticed that there are no neighborhoods where people can live anywhere near the airport. Indeed, that’s rather the point of why they moved Denver’s airport from the far-more populated “Stapleton” area to way out in the country. And happily, the previous airport’s locality has been renamed “Central Park,” since naming things after KKK members is never a good idea, but I digress…

Not to be overly technical, as an old Air Force guy, but planes are, well, loud. And they need lots of room, and so moving from an urban area to the wide-open prairie that now houses DIA was a good idea from air safety point of view. But as with any governmental action, there are both intended and unintended consequences of the move. One of those is that the new location, being many miles from where anyone lives, will require anyone working at DIA to have a monster, and pricy, commute to work. 

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Lots of the good people who labor at DIA work at jobs that pay minimum wage or a bit more. It’s tough to even own and maintain a car at minimum wage, let alone afford the gas to drive it way out to DIA every workday. So, the majority of DIA employers offered their employees a free “EcoPass” from RTD to get their folks to and from work. That is really a great perk and a wonderful idea. People with an EcoPass have unlimited access to the buses and trains of RTD, and that can be the difference between being able to work at DIA and not being able to afford to work there.

Recently, however, as reported in the CP story noted above, one of the main employers of the airport’s service workers, Prospect, has decided to discontinue giving employees an EcoPass. The average price of such a pass is roughly $150 per annum, with a range of from $50 to $750. This pass saves the employees hundreds of dollars every year, as their costs would be much, much higher if they had to pay for their RTD fares daily. 

A few days ago, a number of baggage handlers, passenger service agents, and other service workers gathered in a small protest, in an attempt to draw attention to the impact of losing the EcoPasses. And as so often the case, these lowest-paid workers are also essential for the smooth operation of the airport. Need someone to drive your elderly mom to her gate or to help your disabled brother get his ticket squared away? Quite likely the person who helps you is a low-wage earner in need of the EcoPass.

Happily, the Denver City Council is aware of the problem and seems to be inching toward some type of action. They recently voted unanimously to not amend the lease with Prospect until Prospect addresses the EcoPass issue. I hope the council follows through and Prospect accepts the importance of providing workers with an ability to get to work. And I am guessing paying for Ecopasses is likely cheaper for the company than, say, paying an actual living wage, but I digress…

I love airports and DIA is among the most awesome. The people who work there not only make life easier for those passing through, but they also make it frankly possible for millions of annual visitors to travel for work or pleasure. 

If you need to bump up my parking or other fees a couple of bucks to support these workers, that’s fine with me. We should stand up for those who provide our state with this vital service.

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.