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New Norway Airport Set To Open

October 7, 1998

GARDERMOEN, Norway (AP) _ After decades of controversy, Norway’s new international airport finally is set to open Thursday amid more debate, delays and disputes.

The $1.7 billion Gardermoen airport outside Oslo is the most expensive project this country of 4.4 million people has ever built on land.

Only the offshore oil platforms that make Norway so rich _ it is the world’s second largest oil exporter _ are comparable.

``We have great faith that everything will go fine,″ said managing director Bjoern Sund. However, he warned it could take months before everything runs smoothly at a facility designed to handle 17 million passengers a year.

Thirty miles north of the capital, the spacious, modern terminal was built with plenty of wood, stone and other natural materials. Its architectural inspiration came from the stunning mountain venues of the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics.

Comparisons with Lillehammer seem inevitable. The Games cost Norway nearly as much as the airport, and both projects became national obsessions.

One reason for the passion is that Norway, a long country divided by fjords and mountains, is now bound together by airplanes more than roads or ships. Its air traffic has tripled since 1980, making Norwegians the most frequent fliers in Europe.

The airport debate began 50 years ago, and the country went through decisions, reversals, new decisions and new reversals for three decades until Parliament on Oct. 8, 1992, picked Gardermoen, at the time an airstrip mostly for charter and military flights.

Norwegians are now debating what to do with the current national airport, 59-year-old Fornebu in Oslo.

Minutes after the last passenger plane takes off late today, more than 500 trucks and other vehicles will begin rushing everything to Gardermoen, which takes over 12 hours later.

``The only thing we fear is snow. Otherwise, everything is ready,″ said Kjell Arne Sakshaug, who is in charge of the airport move.

The new airport has twice the capacity of Fornebu. Its two runways can handle 80 flights an hour, including jumbo jets too big for Fornebu, and it employs 10,000 people.

Worries remain, including repeated glitches in the baggage system, direction and information signs and, worst of all, how passengers are to get to and from the new airport.

High speed trains from Oslo to the terminal won’t be as fast or frequent as promised, due to an eight-mile tunnel that leaks from lakes above it.

Efforts to stop the leaks could take another year and mean trains will have to go around the tunnel, increasing travel time from 19 minutes to more than half an hour. The frequency of airport trains will be halved during rush hour due to limited track capacity.

``There has been a lot of talk in the media about all the problems at Gardermoen. But I think it’s quite nice,″ said Solveig Skar, 45, checking in amid stacks of lumber, screaming electric drills and frantic, last-minute preparations. ``You can’t expect an operation of this size to start up with no problems.″

After all the waiting, a new dispute could force Norway’s Braathens airline to miss the opening. Its 330 pilots walked out on strike Tuesday over the terms of their move to Gardermoen.

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