Saturday, March 11, 2006 Airport fights baggage lags Lee looks at millions of dollars in system fixes By Laura Ruane The South Florida News-Press Glitches in automated baggage handling for departing flights at Southwest Florida International Airport have officials working behind the scenes on a fix that is expected to cost $5 million to $10 million. "Once we start approaching the 1,600 (bags per hour) mark, the system starts hiccuping," said Mark Fisher, development director for the Lee County Port Authority. The goal is to achieve near-flawless performance of the system at 2,000 to 2,500 bags per hour. Lee County commissioners meeting as the Board of Port Commissioners on Monday will be asked to approve a $164,000 contract that would have the subcontractor that installed the system work with an engineering firm to come up with a cure for those hiccups. The actual overhaul isn't expected to begin until fall. Safety has not been compromised, airport and security officials say. But efficiency is another matter at the $438 million terminal complex that opened in September. Signs that something is amiss with the high-tech system include: the computer running the system occasionally "crashes," machines misread bag tags, or luggage gets out of line on the roller coaster of conveyor belts that travelers never see. The resulting baggage backlogs occasionally have kept luggage from flying with its owners and might be a factor in some delayed takeoffs. "I've heard people complain about it. I never check bags," said Bob Schaeffer, a Sanibel resident and a frequent business flier. On some departing flights from the new terminal, Schaeffer has been on planes that delayed their departures by 10 to 15 minutes to wait on bags. "The pilot will say 'We're waiting for a few more bags.' " It could be those tardy bags were checked in late, Schaeffer said, adding he has no way of knowing. To alleviate problems during peak travel months, the airport has supplemented the automation with as many as 20 to 30 workers per day from Elite Line Systems, an affiliate of system installer G&T Conveyor Co. The current shortcomings, Fisher said, should come as no surprise. Southwest Florida International was the sixth airport in the country since Sept. 11, 2001, to design and install an automated system for baggage screening. One of the very first - Jacksonville International - is rushing to get a new $18 million setup in place before the 2006 holiday season, according to a January report in the Florida Times-Union. The Jacksonville upgrade aims not only at solving problems, but also will accommodate greater bag totals in the future, said Christopher White, Transportation Security Administration spokesman for the southeastern United States. "We don't view it unusual at all to have to alter these systems in the first year to 18 months of their use," White said. Before Jacksonville, a faulty baggage system in Denver was a key reason that city's new terminal complex opened two years late, in 1995. The automated systems at Fort Myers and Jacksonville are radical departures from pre-Sept. 11, 2001, technology. After the terrorist attacks on America, giant explosives detection machines were crammed into terminals in awkward retrofits. At Southwest Florida International's former terminal north of the runway, travelers first would check in their bags. Then, they would have to schlep them over to the machines operated by federal security agents. Southwest Florida International's new system employs a network of conveyor belts. Electronic beams combined with software programs read bag tags, measure bag length and width, and adjust belt speeds. Based on 2005 flight activity, Southwest Florida International was expected to handle as many as 15,000 bags per day during the peak winter travel season. The TSA last August certified its performance of 1,500 bags per hour as acceptable for opening the airport. Currently, the baggage system at the southeast Lee County airport is handling an average of 1,500 bags per hour, Fisher said. At the most, it has handled 1,750 bags per hour. With greater speed, however, come glitches. The system is intended to smoothly shepherd a mix of bags destined for different airlines through explosive detection machines, and then automatically funnel them to the correct airline's sorting area. After explosives screening, however, as many as 8 percent of the bags must be diverted from the usual conveyor belt route - and driven by baggage tugs to each airline bag makeup area. These diversions are most common, Fisher said, during busy periods when the system is pushing to operate at speeds exceeding 1,700 bags per hour. The total tab for improving the system isn't known, "but early estimates are that it will cost $5 million to $10 million for us to get the system operating as it should be," Fisher said. Costs will be paid for with revenue from airport operations and, if applicable, through federal or state grants. No property tax dollars are used for capital improvements at either Page Field or Southwest Florida International or for the airports' operation. Fisher didn't have an exact figure, but said the original automated system for the new terminal cost $15 million to $20 million. That cost included making the baggage handling area on the terminal's airfield side 30 feet deeper after the new terminal was more than 90 percent designed. To meet the stringent post-Sept. 11, 2001, security rules, county commissioners in April 2003 approved several design changes, including that of the baggage system. "We're fortunate to be able to build this terminal for a new era of air travel," airport director Bob Ball said at the time. Click on the link below for a detailed explainer of the baggage system http://www.news-press.com/assets/pdf/A421668311.PDF Attached Photo: Skycap Billy Katsaris check in bags curbside Friday at Southwest Florida International Airport.