Baggage system to get $13.4M in upgrades

It's less than a year old, but the baggage system at Southwest Florida International Airport already needs more than $13 million worth of upgrades.

Lee County commissioners, who also serve as the county's port authority, decided without debate Monday to spend the money to have the system fixed by November.

Soon after the airport opened in September, commissioners learned that the baggage system was mishandling luggage and not processing enough bags per hour.

The fully automated system also has problems reading destination tags, resulting in lost luggage and bags that do not make it to planes on time.

The problems are the result of the airport being one of the first in the country to integrate the post-9/11 automated system, which screens luggage for explosives and transports it to the appropriate airline, said Bob Ball, executive director of the Lee County Port Authority.

"By the time it was installed, it was outdated," Ball said. "The technology changed."

New technology was available, but the federal government had yet to approve it, he said.

Commissioners agreed to hire a consultant in March to determine what upgrades the system needs to run more smoothly. At the time, the estimated cost of the fix was between $5 million and $10 million.

The consultant returned with an estimate of $13.4 million. That brings the total cost of the baggage system to about $43 million, Ball said.

The money to pay for the repairs will come from passenger facility charges, which are federally regulated fees that airlines collect per ticket to give back to the airport for projects pre-approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, said Ben Siegel, division director of administration for the Port Authority.

Commissioner Tammy Hall said she was not concerned about the discrepancy between the early estimates to fix the system and the consultant's final project budget.

"I don't want to be penny conscious and dollar foolish at this point," Hall said.

The upgrade will add three electronic tag readers that determine the destination of the luggage, and 1,100 feet of conveyor belt to the system that already sprawls out in a maze behind the scenes at the airport.

Contractors will also install more than 40 new power diverters to help realign the bags as they enter machines, which screen for explosives.

At peak times, when the current system processes more than 1,500 bags per hour, glitches cause bag jams, misalignment of bags and software problems.

That process rate does not meet Transportation Security Administration certification criteria, Ball said.

When the automated system fails, airport officials have to revert to the manual method, enlisting employees from other areas of the terminal.

Airport officials have estimated that about 8 percent of passengers' luggage doesn't make it to its airline and must be manually delivered.

Officials expect the upgraded system to handle up to 2,600 bags per hour, which should be adequate to handle the airport's current and future peak baggage levels, Ball said.

"Consultants and contractors think they can get it higher than that," he said.

Depending on passenger growth, the upgrades should make the system adequate for the next five to 10 years, Ball said.

Airport officials are paying contractors extra to have the project accelerated by about 6 months so the upgrades should be in place by November, before the start of the holidays and heavy tourist season, he said.

Commissioners also agreed to pay $478,291 for enhanced signs at the airport.

Most of the signs will be placed in the parking garage, alerting travelers to the location of their airlines so they can park closer to their destination.

Some of the improvements are part of a $101.8 million operating budget that commissioners approved Monday.

The budget represents a 6 percent, or $5.6 million, increase over last year's budget.

The airport is a self-sustaining entity of the county. It gets its budget from fees paid by airlines and other revenues, such as parking services and facility charges.

Airlines pass airport charges along to customers, which, at Southwest Florida International, boils down to $7.44 per departing passenger, just below the national average of between $7.50 and $8, Siegel said.

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