PARIS, March 20 (Reuters) - Four years after its roof caved in, killing four people, the boarding area at Paris airport's terminal 2E is reopening following a 150 million euro ($232 million) rebuilding project.
The first passengers will pass through its giant lounge on March 30, two weeks after Queen Elizabeth opened a new terminal at Heathrow -- highlighting efforts by Charles de Gaulle to oust London's main airport as the top passenger hub in Europe.
"This project supports our ambition to expand because in two years we will have added capacity for 20 million passengers a year," terminal director Franck Goldnagel told Reuters.
"I think we can catch up with London by 2011 or 2012. We are already ahead of Frankfurt."
On Thursday, workers were putting finishing touches to the 660-metre long boarding jetty after transforming its original concrete-covered vault, criticised by many for being too gloomy, into an airy glass, steel and wooden chrysalis.
A 30-metre section of the original concrete roof collapsed in May 2004, just 11 months after 2E was opened. French judges are still trying to find out what caused the accident.
The reopening marks a return to business as usual for Air France-KLM (AIRF.PA) which uses the terminal as part of its Paris hub. It transfers European Union passengers from 2F across the concourse to board flights to North America and Asia at 2E.
After years of frowning on the tendency of other European airports to build shopping arcades, operator Aeroports de Paris (ADP.PA) has started to cash in on the association in most travellers' minds between France and both food and fashion.
It added an extra 1,000 square metres of retail space in the new design for 2E, including luxury boutiques such as Prada and Dior, and top French chef Guy Martin of the Grand Vefour restaurant is responsible for the sandwiches' recipe.
"We were looking for a French touch," said Goldnagel. "We want passengers to remember they have been to Paris. Even in transit they will feel that they have seen a bit of Paris."
Architect Paul Andreu, who also designed the dome-shaped Beijing Opera, had left ADP before the accident happened.
The redesigned building preserves the original elliptical or squashed cylinder shape pioneered by Andreu, but has been redesigned from the main floor upwards to bring in more light.
A 33,000 square metre glass outer casing on the old roof was preserved in a specially built airport hangar and became part of a new transparent roof stretched across a new metal framework.
Inside the terminal a wooden ceiling with plenty of gaps to allow in light creates a warm feeling while allowing passengers to watch planes take off or land on a nearby runway.
"We saved the glass but this is a new building calculated from scratch. The only special thing was the 'deconstruction' phase," said project director Marie-Laure Kepeklian, a former roads and bridges engineer for the French government.
The terminal means big business for ADP and its main customer Air France-KLM and is regarded as crucial to restoring ADP's reputation following the accident. ADP has a subsidiary which also builds airports abroad.
ADP, which also operates Orly, had the top passenger traffic growth in Europe of 4.7 percent last year. It says Charles de Gaulle's traffic of some 60 million passengers is about 10 percent below Heathrow's, with runway capacity to spare.
"We were walking on eggshells during the reconstruction. We could not afford to have a single mishap," said Romain Lochu, an operations executive on the rebuilding team.
"We put in lasers to spot the slightest bending of the roof so that we could evacuate if necessary. It only went off once when a bird got inside." (Editing by Robert Woodward)