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Airport congestion in the United States is something we have come to grudgingly accept. Unfortunately, it has become an almost integral part of the flying experience. Crowded runways, air traffic holds, even lines on the ground to leave or get to airplane gates.

And at many airports - now operating at capacity or beyond capacity levels - the situation does not promise to improve.There is, however, for the savvy traveler a short-range solution to the problem. When flying to or from a major city, consider using an alternate airport.

Flying to New York? Use Newark. To Washington? Try Baltimore. Chicago? Choose Midway. San Francisco? Look at Oakland or San Jose. Los Angeles? There's Burbank or Long Beach.

All of these airports share a number of things in common. They are less crowded and in many cases more conveniently located in terms of ground services.

My favorite alternate airport is Oakland. I use it every time I fly to San Francisco. I've never been delayed getting into or out of Oakland, and it's actually a faster ride over the Oakland Bay Bridge to San Francisco International Airport.

Another reason it's faster is the design of the airport. Can you name another major airport where rental cars are located 100 feet away from the main terminal building? Oakland is, to put it mildly, a breeze. And American Airlines has a $50 million hub at the San Jose airport, another good alternative to San Francisco International. (American is starting New York-to-San Jose nonstop service later this month.)

Another favorite alternate airport is Baltimore. It continues to be a most attractive choice if you're flying to the Washington, D.C., area. The still under-utilized airport is almost always uncrowded. Better still, flights leave on time.

In New York, for example, both LaGuardia and J.F.K. are operating at overcapacity levels. Newark becomes a realistic and practical alternative. And frequent shuttle service to Manhattan is often a faster trip than the journey into the city from J.F.K.

Chicago's O'Hare comes as close to airport gridlock as possible. Enter Midway Airport, a neglected choice for years which has suddenly become a first choice for many frequent flyers (traffic at Midway is expected to jump another 31 percent by the year 2000). And getting to Midway from downtown Chicago is often easier, especially during rush hour.

Los Angeles International is already operating over its capacity levels. Many of the domestic airlines that serve LAX now fly directly into Burbank airport. And the schedule has become more diversified. In addition to the normal traffic between Burbank and the Bay Area, there are a host of daily nonstop flights to Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, St. Louis and Denver.

Some other reasonable alternatives are Salt Lake City, Kansas City and, weather permitting, Pittsburgh.

In Kansas City, passengers don't have to walk far between gates, connections are easy, and access to the airport is unencumbered.

Salt Lake's airport boasts one of the best on-time performance records of major U.S. airports. Perhaps equally important, it is also one of the least congested.

What about weather? Salt Lake certainly gets its share of fog and snow, but in the last six years the airport was shut down only once.

Weather CAN be a problem at Pittsburgh, which is a hub to 99 nonstop destinations. But it's often a much better choice than Chicago to change planes.

Finally, there are a number of other alternate airports coming into their own. Try the airport at Palm Beach, Fla. It's the only major airport between Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando. It's a great alternative for anyone flying into either Miami or Orlando.

And officials in Eugene, Ore., have completed an $18 million expansion project that now makes the airport an attractive alternative to Portland.

But if you're hoping for a new alternate airport in Denver, you may have to wait a very long time. At one point citizens in Adams County voted to annex 45 square miles of rolling farmland 18 miles northeast of Denver to become the world's largest airport.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the proposed $3 billion airport is still stuck on the ground - delayed by arguments over the financial contributions of individual airlines toward its construction. At one point, it was estimated that the new airport wouldn't be finished until 1995. It probably will take longer. And by that time, Denver's current Stapleton airport could well be nothing more than an armed camp of militant travelers.

(c) 1990, Los Angeles Times Syndicate