The Denver International Airport opening is likely to be delayed until the first quarter of next year, city aviation directors James DeLong said last week.

"We're still looking at it. We know from an operational standpoint it's not practical to open Dec. 19." said DeLong, who expects to announce the long-anticipated delay within the next two weeks.

Operational snags aside, the projected opening has also been imperiled by the airlines that will use the new airport. They want to push the date back and avoid a potential nightmarish Christmas rush.

To that end, the airlines have offered to pay debt service on the new airport while keeping Stapleton Airport open. DeLong said debt service on the new airport totals $16 million a month, which would be offset by revenues from Stapleton.

The city hopes to open the $3.1 billion airport -- the nation's largest construction project -- in January, February, or March. The timing will depend on two crucial projects: the baggage systems, and the cable and wiring systems for airlines reservations and communications.

"The baggage system is giving us fits." DeLong said of the pioneering, $300 million fully automated system. One of its size and complexity has never been constructed.

Denver International Airport originally estimated at about $2 billion, now has a construction budget of $2.84 billion, plus land and litigation cost that push it to $3.1 billion.

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