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Operating at the Denver International Airport will cost airlines an average of $18.15 per passenger - the most expensive in the country.

Cost overruns of $250 million in the past two years, plus up to 17 months of delay, pushed the estimate up 25 percent from $14.50 per passenger two years ago.The cost is more than 3 1/2 times airlines' average costs of $5.02 per passenger at Stapleton International Airport in Denver.

The information is contained in the city's official statement for a $257 million bond sale, money that will carry DIA until April 1 and pay for a makeshift baggage system.

The cost per departing passenger isn't an actual charge to the airlines. It is the average of all landing fees, bulding rents, ramp charges and other costs billed to airlines, divided by the number of people boarding planes. It is used as a means to judge costs and potential profits.

That's bad news for Continental Airlines. Two years ago, Continental ordered a 20-gate concourse, an expanded baggage system and terminal facilities at DIA, expecting to maintain its hubbing operation.

But by Nov. 1, the airline will have only 22 daily flights as it completes dismantling of its Denver hub. With 1.1 million passengers projected for 1995, down from 5.4 million last year, Continental's average cost per passenger will be $45.47.

That's because most of the airline's costs, such as the rent on Concourse A, are fixed for five years. The flight cuts will save Continental more than $20 million in landing fees, but other cuts are hard to come by.

By contrast, United Airlines' estimated average cost per departing passenger in 1995 is $17.13. All other airlines, averages are figured to be $14.55.

There is irony in Continental's cutbacks.

If Continental had continued at its 1993 levels, it might have had the lowest airport cost of any airline at DIA. Even with the added landing fees, Continental's total charges would have averaged about $14 per passenger.

Aviation manager Jim DeLong said the increase is unpleasant but contended that the $13-a-passenger jump over Stapleton is a fair price for the enhancements in safety and operating, which he says could shave another $3 off that increase.

"I'm not pleased it's at $18, but focus on what the difference is," he said. "What we're talking about is a $13 premium for what Stapleton can't offer."

Since the September 1992 bond sale, when the city's construction budget was capped at $2.7 billion, the city's building costs have risen to $2.953 billion.

When land purchases and private facilities, including the Federal Aviation Administration's tower, are included, the total cost of the building DIA amounts to $3.9 billion, When financing costs are added, the total cash needed to build and finance the airport amounts to $5 billion.