EUROPEAN AIRPORTS: THE SOUND AND THE FURY

EUROPEAN AIRPORTS: THE SOUND AND THE FURY

Remember those slapstick ''Airplane'' films? Here's a rough script for a sequel: A brand-new, multibillion-lire Italian airport opens, but it's so poorly connected to its city that hardly anyone wants to use it.

Next, the ever-amusing Italian government decides to force foreign airlines - but, of course, not Italy's state-controlled carrier, Alitalia - to use the new airport, even though their customers don't want to go near it.The plot thickens: On the first day of the forced switch, Germany's stubborn airline sends a couple of jetliners to the old airport anyhow. But Italian air controllers refuse to let the planes land there, and send them back to the new airport, chiding the Germans for ''insufferable arrogance.''

Then a dozen angry foreign airlines - led by the German airline - beg the European Commission to force Italy to let them use the old, outmoded airport. And, to top it all off, the hapless commission suddenly discovers that the company that it hired to advise it on how to bash Italy over the airport fiasco is half-owned by the German airline. So the commission fires the firm.

A laugh a minute? Not really. That's European airport reality. It happened last month when Italy forced Germany's Lufthansa and other foreign airlines to use Milan's inconvenient new Malpensa airport instead of the outmoded but accommodating Linate field.

The forced shift may not sound like a big deal, until you are a passenger who has to dish out a taxi fare almost as high as the cost of your plane ticket to ride the 33 miles from Malpensa to Milan. The old airport, Linate, is a mere 10-minute bus ride from Milan's busy center.

Welcome to the wild world of European airports - a sort of real-life ''Airplane'' movie that's badly in need of a script doctor.

Not much is funny, and lots of scenes are downright irritating. And Malpensa is hardly the only controversy. Major delays have struck Europe's outmoded flight-control system, environmentalists are shouting loudly to stop airport noise, and every country seems to have its own never-ending airport saga.

It's sort of a soap opera in the clouds. There are villains and heroes, high flyers and low bids, long waits and short tempers. And some crazy characters.

Take the case of Madrid's Barajas airport. This spring, a wild group of protesters swarmed into the airport dressed in loud red bathrobes and yellow nightclothes.

It was a ''pajama demonstration,'' staged monthly to protest the $3.5 billion expansion of the airport with a fourth and fifth runway. A clutch of Madrid's suburbs have filed suit, trying to block the expansion because it would worsen noise in their communities.

Indeed, expansion plans - and the sometimes colorful efforts to block them - are among the recurring scenes in European airports. At the top level are the giants, led by London's maze-like Heathrow, Paris' glassy Charles de Gaulle, Amsterdam's crowded Schiphol and the ambitious Frankfurt airport.

Twenty years ago, black-masked demonstrators clawed their way through barbed wire to protest the major expansion at Frankfurt airport that included the west runway. Today, more protesters are gearing up to fight plans for another major Frankfurt expansion, to add a third big runway.

But Frankfurt, which is Europe's top air-freight airport as well as its second-ranking passenger terminal, is hedging its bets. The Frankfurt airport company recently bought a controlling interest in the nearby Hahn airport. That's a former U.S. military airstrip that can be used for night cargo flights. And the company has acquired minority interests, or at least is helping to manage, 37 other airports across the world, from Bangkok to Peru.

But the French aren't letting the scheming Germans roll over them this time around. They are fighting to make Paris' airport the European star.

Across the old military Maginot Line, the de Gaulle airport is on an expansion binge, opening its third major runway last year, and now building a fourth runway that will greatly increase its capacity. While Frankfurt, Heathrow and Schiphol have expansion worries, de Gaulle keeps forging ahead.

So are some of Europe's smaller airfields. Zurich's airport has gotten approval for a major expansion, and the Swiss government has loosened some of its airport-noise regulations to allow more traffic. Vienna's airport is also planning a major expansion to make it more of an air gateway between Central and Eastern Europe. Athens will open a big new airport next spring, and Lisbon is planning to start work on a new $2 billion airport.

In theory, Germany's capital city of Berlin should be among the major air players of the future. But years of bickering, financial problems, and even a lawsuit involving industrial espionage have delayed the project - an expansion of former East Berlin's Schoenefeld airport - until 2007 at the earliest. Could this become a spy movie instead of a slapstick comedy?

Through it all, no one should count out Italy's unlucky Malpensa airport, which has caused its share of controversy this spring. Once the Italian government finishes building its rail and highways links connecting the new airport with downtown Milan, Malpensa will be much more desirable for passengers - as it is already for some forms of air freight.

Maybe it's still a likely set for an ''Airplane'' film sequel, but Malpensa eventually will take its place as a modern airfield that can effectively handle plenty of air commerce and passengers. That's progress, not slapstick.