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Denver's marble airport bags a place in history


in Washington

Is the revolutionary prospect of seeing your luggage waiting for you in the airport building after a long flight, rather than you waiting for it, worth $4.2bn (£2.7bn)?

That is one of the questions Americans will be asking themselves today when Federico Pena, the US Transport Secretary, opens Denver International Airport (DIA), 18 months later than planned at a cost three times higher than initially budgeted.

Mr Pena, who thought up the project 10 years ago when he was mayor of Denver, scorns critics who have described the airport as a white elephant and carped that the acronym DIA might more plausibly fit the phrase "Dumbest Idea Anywhere".

The theme of Mr Pena's speech, sources at the Department of Transport said, will be that Denver International is a monument to the inventiveness of the species.

In the same way that history has vindicated once-derided pioneers of air travel, Mr Pena will say, so will 21st-century historians marvel at the foresight and imagination of those who designed the "crown jewel" of America's airports.

The most innovative gimmick, and the cause of all the delays, is a luggage-moving system served by a 20-mile network of underground tracks and six miles of conveyor belt.

Running along tracks at speeds of up to 19 miles an hour will be 3,100 little cars, each of which will carry one piece of luggage. These are the Destination Coded Vehicles (DCV), described in an official DIA pamphlet as being "something like Disneyland Matterhorn Toboggans".

A better description last May,when the system catastrophically packed up, must have been "something like dodgems".

Mangled rails, crunched DCVs and torn clothes were the spectacle yielded by the trial-run.

It has taken nine months for technicians to debug the computer system controlling the DCVs - a system so sophisticated that it will allow luggage controllers to identify the exact location of your suitcase at any given time and, more to the point, supposedly guarantee that the suitcase will reach the arrivals terminal before you do.

Mr Pena, whose own place in history depends on the success or otherwise of the airport, will be able to point to the All- American vastness of the enterprise.

Set in a valley surrounded by snow-peaked mountains, covering an area twice the size of Manhattan, the airport has five all-weather runways and can expand to accommodate 12.

The floors of the main terminal are made of Italian marble and cover an area the size of two football pitches.