JIA rips out $15 million baggage system for newer one

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on May 27, 2006.

In the bowels of Jacksonville International Airport, 1.16 miles of conveyor belt carry bags through a cramped room, transporting the luggage through scanning machines and into the hands of security personnel.

That $15 million scanning system was installed four years ago, and over the next six months, the Jacksonville Aviation Authority will rip up the nearly new system and spend about $18 million to install a new system under the mezzanine area where travelers check in.

The project will be paid for out of the JAA's capital budget, with money coming from a bond issue.

The new setup will replace what was one of the first systems in the nation where bags could be scanned while being transported to the airplanes rather than passengers hauling bags to giant scanners as they check in. Being in the front of the pack and having to deal with the chaos of federal regulations still being written during installation led the Jacksonville Aviation Authority to install a system that has had trouble getting bags to airplanes on time and has required an increased number of employees to keep things going smoothly. The system consists of a maze of conveyor belts and scanners, where problems such as luggage tumbling down conveyer ramps occur.

Earlier this year, for example, US Airways complained that more than two dozen bags took an hour to go through the baggage screening process so that luggage missed the flight it should have been on.

The original system was installed quickly: The airport was in the midst of expanding its baggage area when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, and executives decided to combine the scanning project with that work rather than halt the expansion and delay the installation. JIA was also facing a Dec. 31, 2002, federal deadline -- it was the only airport in the country to meet it -- to have all checked baggage scanned, either behind the scenes or in the lobby.

When it started on the project, the airport expected to use a system similar to one used by the airport in Manchester, England, which has been screening bags for about a decade, said JAA Chief Administration Officer Chip Snowden.

In the months after Sept. 11, Authority Executive Director John Clark and Snowden visited that airport to inspect how it did in-line screening, which means scanning bags as they are transported from the check-in desk to the airplane.

In-line screening is better for everyone, said Christopher White, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration. "The system gives customers pre-Sept. 11 convenience and gives TSA and the airport post-Sept. 11 security," White said.

But even though the TSA likes in-line screening, it didn't like the Manchester method of doing it, which forced the Aviation Authority to change its plans on the fly, making the system a tight fit in the space allocated for it and cutting down on how quickly bags could get through the process, leading to congestion.

"We couldn't stop because we were half pregnant," Snowden said. "We were really pinched by the deadline. It was several months until we knew who we were talking to. It was a very hectic time."

As well as the federal deadline, Snowden said, the airport also had to deal with the problems of construction. "We were renovating while operating," he said. "You can't be torn up for too long."

The new system, which contractors started work on early this month, will smooth out the route that bags take from check-in counter to airplane, helping the authority save on labor costs as well as delaying fewer bags.

When bags are checked in, they'll be sent through machines under the check-in area, significantly reducing the distance they have to travel before they reach the staging area from where they are taken to the airplane.

Each side of the terminal will have its own system, rather than all bags being scanned at one place, as is now done. The new system will also be on one level, dispensing with the ups and downs of the current system, which can lead to jams or other problems as the bags shift.

Such problems should be a thing of the past when the new system is operational, said Bob Molle, the Jacksonville Aviation Authority's director of engineering. "The single biggest impact is a bag doesn't make it to its destination," Molle said. "It is our intention to make things easier for the airlines to handle their bags and assure there are no lost bags leaving Jacksonville."

Otherwise, Molle said, the project should be invisible to passengers; the old system will remain active while the new system is being installed.

Work on the new system will coincide with a terminal expansion program, which starts next month, one of the reasons the baggage system is being changed now.

"We know that for the long-term future we need to have a system that can handle the throughput we have," Snowden said. "There's a certain amount of pain with anything like this, but 2 1/2 years from now, we'll be done with everything. We don't want to spread the pain out."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

Other Clips