This just in: Stapleton International Airport has disappeared. That's the official verdict of the American Automobile Association, and it's perfectly timed for the start of the summer tourist season.

The 1994 AAA map of Denver, produced by H.M. Gousha, shows only blank, white space where Stapleton should be. Denver International Airport, on the other hand, is clearly marked and even merits a large inset in the map's upper right corner.

Snafus at DIA, highlighted by a baggage system that former mayor Federico Pena predicted last week would be "open in our lifetime," have infected travel guides throughout the country.

Among them is Frommer's Comprehensive Travel Guide--Colorado, 2nd Edition, published by New York-based Prentice Hall, which discloses a fact previously unknown to Denverites: DIA is "the seventh busiest airport in the United States, with approximately 1,400 flights each day." (It was a bad year for Paramount Communications; the communications conglomerate owns both Prentice Hall and H.M. Gousha.)

Perhaps hardest hit, however, was AAA, which has nearly 36 million members nationally and 395,000 in Colorado. In addition to the map glitch, the huge travel agency's current Colorado/Utah Tour Book mentions only DIA--not Stapleton. Officials at AAA say distribution of 463,000 of the maps and 1.6 million of the books to more than 1,000 of the agency's branches across the United States began in late March. In Colorado, 14,000 tour books and 8,000 maps have been passed out so far. National AAA spokesman Jerry Cheske notes that a map recall "would be a considerable, overwhelming task." Instead, he says, the company's relying on its agents to set customers straight.

"I don't mean to minimize this," says Cheske, "but this is not a catastrophic situation. These kinds of things occur."

When asked how the premature disappearance of Stapleton did occur, AAA pointed the finger at Gousha and Gousha pointed the finger at Denver.

"We're not directly involved in publishing this map," says cartographer Elke Owen at AAA headquarters in Heathrow, Florida. "The only thing we could do is when we hear about mistakes we would forward them to Gousha to correct for the next edition."

But "Stapleton was supposed to close," says Nancy Below, research specialist at Gousha's cartographic branch in Comfort, Texas. "People at the airport authority assured us that they were definitely going to have it open in April.

"The map was late because we had to include the new airport--and it didn't even open."

Below swears that Gousha called DIA's public affairs office to verify that DIA was replacing Stapleton. "We received the initial information in May of 1993 that the airport location would change in December of 1993," she says. The Gousha researcher also called about the subsequent delays. "But I was told the airport would open in April."

Travel officials are counting on the national notoriety of DIA's problems to help them out. "I think most people know about [DIA] by now," says Barbara Bauerle, a spokeswoman for AAA Colorado. "It was on the David Letterman show the other night."

Denver-based Pierson Graphics Corporation, which publishes a number of local maps, has not taken Stapleton off its maps because it's still in use and it will continue to be used for other activities even after it closes as an airport.

"With DIA and Stapleton, we have no pros and cons as to whether it is open or not, whereas a travel agency may," said Valarie Davis, a sales representative at Pierson Graphics. "People who are going to use the area are still going to have to get there."

Some travel mavens outside Colorado also played it cautiously. Editors of Fodor's '94--Colorado travel guide covered their assumptions by listing both Stapleton and DIA as existing airports. But, unfortunately, Fodor's '94--USA, the self-proclaimed "complete guide to the best of everything in all 50 states," listed only DIA and noted that "the airport opened in 1993."

For those who think the confusion might frustrate Californians into avoiding Colorado, forget it. The AAA Automobile Club of Southern California still is distributing the old map of Denver, says corporate communications director Layna Browdy. "The good news for you," she says, "is that we're not distributing the [new] map here in southern California."

Whether that's good news or not is a matter of opinion in Colorado, but there is a good chance that Californians will become confused about Denver's airports. Browdy says the club has such a backlog of the old Denver maps that it won't be handing out the new, erroneous maps for at least six to eight more weeks. "Hopefully," she says, "by the time we're ready to distribute it, your new airport will be up and running." (Not likely. Mayor Wellington Webb has announced no date yet.)

Local AAA officials already are braced for the day when DIA actually opens. When customers have called to figure out logistics about using DIA, Bauerle says, "the only thing we felt necessary to do was to tell people not to check their bags.


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