Tom Welch hosts a lot of visitors to Salt Lake City as head of the city's bid for the 1998 Winter Olympics. But efforts to impress a member of the International Olympic Committee recently got off to an awkward start when his important guest arrived at the airport at 11:30 p.m., then waited 35 minutes for the baggage to appear.

"I can understand that happening in the middle of the day. But late at night?" Welch asked fellow members of the Airport Authority board last week.Indeed, the long wait for baggage in Salt Lake International Airport's Terminal 2 has become an expected frustration any time of day.

But that will start changing Saturday, promised Airport Director Louis E. Miller, when the new expansion of the west end of Terminal 2 opens to the flying public.

The $10 million expansion includes new baggage handling facilities that Miller and Delta Air Lines claim will significantly improve the service incoming passengers receive.

"It is a rare event to wait two to three minutes for a bag," said Delta spokesman Neil Monroe, comparing Salt Lake's upcoming service to that in Atlanta.

The most visible change to the public will be a fourth baggage carousel. But the key to the efficient new system opening this week is a new cargo area for inbound baggage only.

"The problem has been having both inbound and outbound baggage handled in the same area," Miller said.

As outbound suitcases are electronically sorted by destination to their respective conveyor belts, small trucks hauling long trailers full of incoming baggage are trying to get in and unload.

Traffic jams are common. And with priority given to outbound flights, the driver hauling incoming baggage has to wait outside the cargo area as frustrated passengers stand around the carousel.

Baggage is handled the same way at Terminal 1, but traffic is light enough there that delays don't occur, Miller said. While Delta manages 160 departures a day from Terminal 2, each airline handles from three to 10 daily departures from Terminal 1.

The airport has more steps planned to speed up the processing of passengers by the end of the year.

With the new carousel operating, Delta will replace one of the older carousels and reposition the remaining two, so all four will be running by August. Also, the airport is constructing underground conveyor belts from baggage departments to the new parking plaza, scheduled for completion this fall.

The underground passage for suitcases will allow travelers to check in baggage from the plaza and avoid waiting in line at the ticket counter, Miller said.

Once the system is complete, Miller will begin receiving monthly statistics from Delta on the waiting time for inbound baggage, which he will pass on to the authority board.

And Delta appreciates the board's concern. In airline customer service, handling baggage "is pretty darned important," Monroe said.

"It's one of the things that can create ill will quickly if it's not done right."

Past visitors to Salt Lake City can second that.