Out of America: Earthly glitches around gateway to the stars

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The Independent Online
DENVER - How wonderful, how logical, it all seemed not so long ago. This city would build itself a new airport. Not just any airport, but the best in the world, one that men would cross continents to behold.

And why not? Denver was already Gateway to the Rockies: with the right airport it could become Gateway to the West, Gateway to the US, Gateway to the World. Indeed why not Gateway to the Cosmos, the natural Earthly stopover for travellers between Mars and Venus. And so they built Denver International Airport (DIA). But they should have added one proviso for humans and extra-terrestrials alike: Hand Luggage Only. DIA can deliver anything - except your baggage.

Denver, cow-town turned goldrush city turned self-appointed metropolis to the universe, has never been a place to hide its light under a bushel. Boom and bust is the Denver way; the DIA saga somehow couldn't have happened anywhere else. It was in 1985 that the then mayor, Federico Pena, now a chastened Secretary of Transportation in the Clinton cabinet, announced the plan, as the city's most recent boom - oil and real estate this time - was coming to grief. Denver's existing Stapleton airport, already the eighth busiest in the world, was bursting at the seams. A state-of- the-art replacement would really put Denver on the map. Nine years later, laughing-stock is a better word. Not that the dollars 3.2bn ( pounds 2.13bn) DIA lacks the superlatives to satisfy even Denver's outsized ego. Outside and in, it is stunningly beautiful. Approach it by road, and it looks like Xanadu on the high plains, the cones of its white fabric roof floating as mysterious as the peaks of the Rockies beyond. Inside, the terminal has an atmosphere somewhere between a cathedral and the atrium of a five-star hotel.

DIA is the first airport entirely designed by computer. It is the first where three aircraft can land simultaneously in bad weather. Not least, it has the world's most advanced baggage system taking individual items of luggage in containers along 22 miles of underground track at 20 mph, guided by scanners, photo-cells and other wizardry. Only at DIA, they boasted, would your luggage beat you to the carousel. The trouble is, no one's got the thing to work yet.

In the latest test, only a fortnight before the official opening which had been planned for 15 May, the containers hurtled around like demented dodgems, crashing into each other and ripping suitcases open, before the system jammed up completely. But the fault is not wholly that of Gene Di Fonso, president of BAE, the system's manufacturer. BAE had been given neither the time nor authority to do a proper job. When the glitches can be ironed out, no one knows: the new postponement, the fourth in eight months and costing dollars 1m a day, is described as 'indefinite'. Scheduled flights flicker across the arrival and departure screens, while moving walkways whir unused along three concourses built to accommodate more passengers than Heathrow. Some 40ft below, robot trains scuttle between concourses and terminal at two-minute intervals, stopping at gleaming, empty plazas.

One day the airport will open and these troubles will doubtless be a tiresome footnote to the Denver epic. But was the new airport necessary in the first place? Critics say the concept of mega-hubs is losing favour among airlines and Stapleton could have been expanded, at far less cost.