Wanted: new airports to ease gridlock of increasing air travel

When city fathers here first proposed building a new airport in 1974, little did they know how long it might take to turn their dreams into tarmac. Today, 14 years, $75 million, and a Boeing full of studies later, no earth has yet been turned on a new facility - though the city is making significant strides in its quest to replace congested Stapleton International.

Denver's triumphs and frustrations in trying to bring a new airport to life foreshadow what many cities may experience between now and the turn of the century.

Faced with impending gridlock in the skies and on runways, a consensus is emerging in aviation circles that a major expansion of the country's airport system is needed.

Some aviation analysts say the burgeoning commercial air traffic in the United States may be able to be handled by more flexible airline scheduling, routing of flights to less-traveled hubs, and other means.

Yet many in government and the airline industry now agree that more runways and terminals will be part of the equation. Federal Aviation Administration chief T. Allan McArtor, among others, has suggested that up to 12 major new airports may have to be built over the next 20 years.

This view is based on simple arithmetic. Since 1978, when Congress deregulated the airline industry, the number of passengers using commercial airlines in the US has jumped from 275 million to 450 million in 1987. By 2000, it is projected to climb to over 800 million. Yet no major new airport has been opened since Dallas-Fort Worth in 1974, and many now in existence were built in the era of the ``prop'' plane.

``We are going to have to have enough new capacity to add 256,000 operations a year every year for the next 20 years,'' says Mike Harrison, an FAA analyst.

The reasons for the dearth of airport construction are well known: huge expense, lack of available land near major cities, local concerns about noise and pollution.

Some aviation specialists say they think these obstacles can be overcome with federal leadership and good salesmanship at the local level. They cite the billions of dollars airports can pump into local economies. ``The problem with airports is that the only people who speak up are those who oppose them,'' says Timothy Brosnahan, head of a group promoting more airport capacity.

Denver should offer both hope and heartbreak to those considering new facilities.

The city has made significant progress in its bid to replace Stapleton, the nation's fifth-busiest air hub and one of the most congested, with a new field northeast of downtown. For example, the recent vote by neighboring Adams County residents, which allowed Denver to annex 45 square miles on which the new airport would sit, marked a political milestone in an era when airports are usually greeted with the enthusiasm of the Internal Revenue Service.

Scheduled to open in 1995, the $1.6 billion air field is expected to be bigger than Chicago's O'Hare and Dallas-Fort Worth combined. It is initially planned to handle 50 million passengers a year (versus 35 million at Stapleton) but will have the capacity to be expanded. It could become the country's second-busiest hub.

Yet formidable obstacles remain before hopes become runways. Foremost, at the moment, is the city's feud with the airlines themselves. Continental and United Airlines, which together control 87 percent of the air traffic here, say the city is moving too fast on an airport that is not yet needed. Continental recently broke off talks with the city altogether.

``The capacity of this airport will more than adequately handle traffic until after the year 2000,'' says United's Ed Nielson.

City officials, however, contend that passenger demand, now flat, will rachet up again soon. They say the airlines are really just concerned about new carriers coming in and boosting competition.

However the tiff between the airlines and the city comes out, Denver is vowing to press ahead with the new airport anyway, which could set an important precedent. Usually, local governments and tenant air carriers initial user agreements before construction begins, which helps cities secure financing.

``If the city is able to prove it can finance an airport without an airline agreement, it would open the door for other cities,'' says Robert Albin, chairman of a business community task force on the airport here.

In another arena - Congress - Denver hopes for more agreeableness. It is seeking $100 million a year for five years, though other cities are sidling up to Uncle Sam for airport funding, too.

Thomas Gougeon, an aide to Denver Mayor Federico Pena, is confident the field will get built. In a comment, though, that may not inspire other cities considering airports, he notes: ``If you can't do it in Denver, I'll guarantee you can't do it anywhere else.''

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