Imagine a great airport on a vast rolling prairie, filled with technological wonders and capped by a distinctive white-peaked roof.
Tarnish it with a cantankerous automated baggage system that drew national ridicule, four delayed openings and a host of investigations into alleged wrongdoing.
What you have is the $4.9 billion Denver International Airport, which is scheduled to open Tuesday.
“We have had naysayers and critics from the beginning. Many people are going to be looking at what didn’t go right. I think the story is what did go right,” Denver mayor Wellington Webb said recently.
Twenty-three miles east of downtown Denver, it’s the first big-city airport built in the nation since the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport opened in 1974. The complex sprawls over 53 square miles, about twice the size of Manhattan.
The centerpiece is Jeppesen Terminal, a 1.5 million-square-foot structure set off by a two-story, central atrium and an eclectic mix of art. The terminal’s roof, often compared with a circus bigtop, rises to 126 feet at the highest point.
About 75,000 passengers are scheduled to pass through the airport on its first day of operation, which will get under way with the pre-dawn departure of a United Airlines flight to Kansas City.
More than 1,500 journalists have obtained credentials to cover the opening, including a handful from foreign media outlets.
The opening will culminate a roller-coaster decade for the airport, which was conceived in 1985 by Federico Pena, then the mayor, now federal transportation secretary.
Pena and his supporters wanted Denver International to replace Stapleton International Airport, which they said had outlived its usefulness, particularly because its runway configuration slowed flights in poor weather and contributed to traffic problems nationwide.
Pena also wanted to start the construction project - which had a $6 million payroll at its peak - to pull metropolitan Denver out of economic doldrums caused by the nation’s oil bust in the mid-1980s.
From the beginning, critics have complained it was unnecessary and costly. They argued that Stapleton, built in 1929, was conveniently located seven miles from downtown and nearly paid off, while Denver International’s costs have skyrocketed to $4.9 billion, $3.2 billion more than the original estimate.
In 1991, amid rising costs, Denver scaled back Denver International, from 120 gates and six runways to 87 gates and five runways, smaller than Stapleton’s 108 gates and five runways.
The aviation industry’s hard times dampened passenger growth and many airlines, including Continental, stumbled onto financial difficulties.
Houston-based Continental last year closed its Denver hub, and plans to scale back its operations to 15 flights a day on April 1, down from more than 200 just a few years ago.
The city twice delayed the airport’s opening because of snags in construction of critical equipment.
Then came problems with the BAE Automated Systems Inc. baggage system, which was shown gobbling bags and tossing others hither and yon on national television a year ago.
The high-tech underground rail system was blamed for two delays in the airport’s opening.
In September, frustrated city officials hired Rapistan Demag Corp. for $61 million to build an old-fashioned system of conveyor belts, tugs and carts to shift luggage.
On opening day, the alternate system will serve airlines on two concourses.
The $232 million BAE automated system, which has worked well in recent tests, will move bags from the main terminal to United Airlines on Concourse B.
United initially will rely on tugs and carts to transfer luggage for arriving passengers, with plans for the automated system to begin serving them in July.
Another wave of problems for Denver International has come in the form of about a dozen investigations into allegations of wrongdoing.
Among them are questions about the city’s disclosures to airport bond investors and a federal grand jury probe into allegations that diluted cement was used on runways, taxiways and aprons.
Regardless of the controversies, the new airport is a sight to behold, from the peaked roof to the underground people-mover, many residents say.
“The floor is the first thing that hits you,” said Wilma Furstenfeld, referring to an inlaid terrazzo floor in shades of rust and gray. “It’s beautiful.”
The three concourses, which will serve 19 airlines plus charter companies, are housed in three parallel buildings extending one mile from the terminal.
Each concourse is decorated in a distinct style, accessible by an automatic subway system that shuttles passengers through two tunnels.
One tunnel is bathed in a pattern of light streaks that illuminate pickaxes at one point; the other has a wall lined with 5,280 metal propellers that spin in breezes generated by the subway’s movement.
A glass-enclosed pedestrian bridge connects Jeppesen Terminal to Concourse A, under which jets can taxi to and from gates.
The size can be both awe-inspiring and confusing.
“I think it’s such a mess,” said Rosie Welch. “You have to go up and down and up and down and up and down. For older people, it’s difficult.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: Airport numbers Quick facts about Denver International Airport: Twenty-three miles from downtown Denver on a 53-squaremile parcel, about twice the size of Manhattan. Five 12,000-foot runways, three concourses, 87 gates and 57 commuter positions. A sixth runway is being planed. Its 15-acre distinctive, whitecapped roof is held up by 34 masts and supports on 10 miles of steel cable and 30,000 clamps. The $37 million roof is composed of hundreds of small Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric panels. Nineteen airlines will operate here. United Airlines will account for about 65 percent of the passenger traffic. About 1,300 flights and an estimated 88,000 passengers will pass through every day. About 23,000 workers. An $84 million automatic underground subway system will shuttle passengers to and from the main terminal to concourses. Two baggage systems. The three-story main terminal is named after aviation pioneer Elrey Jeppesen, whose navigational maps and charts are standard equipment in aircraft. It’s about 1.5 million square feet, including a central atrium that stretches 126 feet to the top of the peaked roof.