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FINALLY, DENVER'S NEW AIRPORT RISES ABOVE EXPECTATIONS

The petulant automated baggage system has behaved since Denver International Airport finally opened in February. And flight delays are a fraction of what they used to be.

Not bad for an airport that was $3.2 billion over budget and whose opening was delayed 16 months by construction problems and a baggage system that gobbled bags."We're delighted. It's working very well for us," said John Philp, a spokesman for United Airlines, the only carrier with a hub in Denver.

The automated baggage system serves only departing United flights and odd-size luggage on arriving flights. Everyone else uses a traditional tug-and-cart system.

During the airport's first month of operation, just .5 percent of its 42,000 passenger, cargo and private jet flights were delayed, compared with a 3.3 percent rate at Stapleton a year earlier.

Joe Jenney of Fort Wayne, Ind., has had three smooth trips through the airport. "The first day, everybody was going through their paces, but after that it's been super," he said.

"We were expecting the worst but had a pleasant experience," said traveler Pat South of New York City. "It's so unique."

Built on 53 square miles of prairie, the $4.9 billion airport is bigger, 17 miles farther from downtown Denver and more expensive than Stapleton, which closed Feb. 27, a day before DIA opened.

The picture's not entirely rosy: the parking lots are packed like sardine cans and the wind blows into dust storms that have some people wearing goggles.

While the city works on problems, it is defending itself in about a dozen investigations and lawsuits related to the airport.

National Car rental employees have worn goggles during wind storms, said Sandy Haze, general manager for company's airport operation.

"The dirt reduces visibility to almost zero. It gets into the cars, we've had computers go out . . . it's so bad when the wind blows that it comes right through everything," she said.

Airport spokesman Steve Klodt said the culprit is ground cover denuded by construction, but the areas are being landscaped to anchor the soil.

Crowds of travelers have been more of a worry to airport officials, who have logged an average of 90,000 passengers a day.

But during peak travel times, subways and parking lots have been packed and lines at airport toll booths have seemed endless.

The airport is about 23 miles from downtown Denver and 12 miles from the nearest service station and hotel, though two hotels plan to open nearby. Getting there costs $38 by cab from downtown Denver and $6 on a bus.