DENVER - The automated baggage system at Denver International Airport is three weeks behind schedule but will be ready in time for the airport's March 9 opening, a city of Denver project official said Monday.

"They have been delayed three weeks, basically because of subcontractor nonperformance," said Ginger Evans, the city's project manager. But, she said, "It will all be up and running three weeks prior to the opening."

Evans was reacting to local press reports that a large portion of the baggage system on Continental Airlines' concourse A would not be ready by March 9. In a report in The Denver Post, construction manager Pat Stricklin was quoted as saying the A concourse baggage system would have to use a conventional tug and cart system to ferry baggage on opening day. The story also anonymously quoted electricians during a site tour as saying the concourse would not be ready.

Evans said that is not true. Both the west side of the concourse and the more troublesome east side need major work, but are scheduled for completion Feb. 17. From then until the March 9 opening the system will be tested "24 hours a day, seven days a week," Evans said.

Mark Weber, a Kemper Securities Corp. analyst, said he expects confusion to reign supreme until the opening.

"From now until March 9, we'll get a lot of conflicting reports like this," Weber said, noting that some institutional bondholders who are not long-term holders will watch developments closely. Some have already used weaknesses in the bond market to sell, he said.

It is possible that a short delay and increased cost would have little effect on the bonds, which are trading at a premium because of their high coupon rates. The overall state of Continental's Denver hub is more important to the total revenue picture, Weber said.

"Air traffic levels are the most critical in our minds. We still think they're pretty risky [bonds]. The opening date and final project costs are just going to be the start for a long debt repayment scenario," Weber said.

An automated baggage system is needed to make the enormous airport work efficiently. Concourse C, for example, is a mile away from the terminal building. Tests on the C concourse have shown it will take 12 minutes to get bags from gate to terminal.

Under the system plan, luggage is loaded into its own cart at the gate. The carts move on a line through a tunnel and under the tarmac to the terminal. The system is designed to use fewer employees, thereby saving operating expenses.

BAE Automated Systems Inc. fired an electrical subcontractor three weeks ago because "they were not supervising their staff" and work was incomplete, Evans said. There was also a delay in obtaining oversized baggage tubs from the manufacturer, she said.

Besides the baggage situation, project managers are grappling with installing 10,000 fiber optic cables for in-house communications systems, such as reservation networks. To date, 6,500 of the so-called tenant drops are complete. The work is being performed by 160 technicians in multiple shifts.

"That work is very busy and will continue to be very busy until shortly before we open," Evans said.

Testing is also continuing on the airport's fire safety and computer systems. A glitch that shut down computers when both the passenger and baggage trains ran simultaneously was uncovered.

Early in January, employees from the airlines and the city will converge on the airport for 60 days of training, as airline agreements with the city allow for.

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