-New airport due to open in March-

LONG before the next Olympics, visitors to Greece will notice a vast difference from the moment of their arrival at the new interna-tional airport serving Athens. Due to begin operations next month, the airport at Spata is the newest in Europe and symbolises the determination of the Greeks to place their country high among the pantheon of modern global economies.

With about 11.5 million people visiting Greece every year, a new international airport was a must as facilities had been overstretch-ed for decades at the ageing Hellenikon airport. Built by a German-led consor-tium in just 51 months and on schedule, the $1.83 billion airport at Spata, is 55 per cent-owned by the Greek state. It will cater for 16 million passengers a year and the eventual plan is to be able to handle 50 million.

The 150,000 sq metre terminal, located about 27km to the east of Athens, is built between two four-kilometre runways, which does away with the need for a long hike to the departure gate. Advanced security and baggage handling should enable passengers to clear the arrivals area in little more than 10 minutes after landing. The airport's official name, decided at ministerial level, is Eleftherios Venizelos, but many Greeks already refer to it as the more easily-pronounceable Spata and this may be adopted as its general name.

Matthias Mitscherlich, chief executive of the 55 per cent gov-ernment owned Athens Airport, which took over management of Eleftherios Venizelos airport last year, says it will open in March. "The aim is to make Spata as accessible to the average Athenian as Hellenikon is today, and we believe that this can be achieved," says Mr Mitscherlich.

Trials of the new facilities at Spata began in October last year. "All the stakeholders in the airport have been participating - the ground handlers, the police, the customs services and security. We have preparation teams for the trials, and for the move from Hellenikon to Spata. "With the help of those who assisted in the transition between the old and new airports at Munich and Hong Kong, we are confident that this change will go through smoothly," he says.

In 2004, Eleftherios Venizelos will be welcoming the arriving Olympic athletes and tourists, but another new airport may be ready by as early as 2002. Ambitious tourist projects for Crete will begin to be realised once the new 6.5 billion drachma airport currently being built in Sitia comes into service. This will be Greece's 40th, and the 27th to offer international services.