In Amsterdam, The Las Vegas Of Airports

Like to get your hands on a ballpoint pen that's actually a radio transmitter? Or a microphone hidden in a fake sugar cube? Consumers can't legally buy such bugging devices in most countries. But you'll find them on sale at the duty-free mall in Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport: $315 for the pen, $160 for the sugar cube. Between planes at Schiphol, you can also buy artists' oil paints, unmounted diamonds, and pornographic videotapes for the kinkiest tastes.

Amsterdam's airport has long been a favorite of frequent fliers, who rate it the world's top duty-free mecca. Now, as partners KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Northwest Airlines Inc. mesh their flights to build Schiphol into a major transatlantic hub, the airport's planners aim to give these big carriers a major boost. At a cost of $2.6 billion over 15 years, they're turning Schiphol into a pleasure dome so alluring--they hope--that more travelers will choose to transit there instead of going to London, Paris, or Frankfurt.

Schiphol's stellar attraction opens on March 30: It's the world's first airport gambling casino. Passengers over 18 will be able to while away their time by playing roulette, blackjack, baccarat, slot machines, and an Asian game called sic-bo.

For those with jet-lagged muscles, a computerized golf course is another airport first. This Finnish invention flashes images of famous courses onto a giant screen. Using clubs that can be rented or bought duty-free, the golfer drives a ball into the screen. Lasers take 4,000 photos per second of the ball's flight, then place it visually in a landing spot. Pros give lessons.

Schiphol has added a small gym, tanning booths, a nursery, and a child-care room with free electronic games. Two hotels off the main concourse offer beds by the hour, saunas, and showers. A new shopping area nearly doubles the duty-free space.

UNDER ONE ROOF. Many airline experts think Schiphol is a major plus for KLM's growth strategy. Recreational joys aside, "the convenience of making connections there is terrific," says Hans Mirka, vice-president for international services at American Airlines Inc. That's because the whole complex is under one roof. At London's Heathrow Airport, changing planes even on the same airline often involves a bus ride to a different terminal. Already, British Airways PLC is warning publicly that Heathrow will lose traffic unless it is improved.

Schiphol ranks only fifth among Europe's airports--after Heathrow, Paris' Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, and Frankfurt. But it's the fastest-growing, with passenger traffic up 44% since 1991. KLM flies half of all flights. Because of Holland's small size, Amsterdam's airport will never be Europe's biggest. But more airline passengers are finding that Schiphol is the most efficient place to change planes--and undoubtedly, the most fun.

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