Baggage system breakdown at SWFIA causes delays, heavy lifting

Large piles of luggage being carted through Southwest Florida International Airport isn't a good sign.

Yes, the $30 million baggage system is on the fritz again. A major upgrade can't be completed soon enough.

As holiday travelers scurried home Monday, airline officials had to hand push outgoing luggage to the loading areas for the second straight day.

Bob Ball, the executive director of the Lee County Port Authority, said a burnt-out motor for the belt that sends luggage downstairs to be screened before it gets on the plane caused New Year's Eve headaches. Some travelers experienced two-hour delays as airlines chose to stay at the gate and wait on the baggage. More problems occurred Monday when several pieces of luggage got stuck in the system just before noon.

Ball admits the system isn't perfect — yet.

"It's definitely not satisfactory," Ball said Monday. "During high-volume times such as this weekend, the system doesn't work properly."

The baggage system is in the middle of a $13.4 million upgrade to handle such high-demand travel periods. Ball said that the modification to the conveyor belts has been slowed and will not be completed until the end of January. Originally, the overhaul was to be finished prior to the Thanksgiving weekend.

"It's clearly an unreliable system," said Ray Judah, a Lee County commissioner and a member of the Port Authority. "But the good news is that we know that it's a problem and we're working to correct it."

Soon after the new Midfield Terminal opened in September 2005, airport officials learned the baggage system was mishandling luggage and not processing enough bags per hour. The system also had problems reading tags, resulting in lost luggage and bags that did not make it to planes on time. Airport employees had to manually run bags to their correct location during times of peak traffic, when the machines had to process more than 1,500 bags per hour.

Judah contends the entire dilemma could have been avoided if the Port Authority wasn't required to purchase a U.S.-certified system. Judah said there are systems used in other countries that are much more capable of handling the tourists levels that Southwest Florida experiences.

"This system certainly isn't the best out there," Judah said. "During heavy-volume times like this weekend, it unfortunately becomes a reality."

Judah is confident that the upgrades will cure the problems.

The multimillion-dollar makeover adds three electronic tag readers that determine the destination of the bags and 1,100 feet of conveyor belt. Once completed, the baggage system will be able to handle at least 2,600 bags per hour.

Until then, problems will exist and delays are expected.

Gary Duncan, the assistant aviation division director, said it's up to airlines to decide whether they want to ground the planes, or let them go and let the luggage catch up to them later. A delay can occur because the outbound luggage system carries it downstairs so it can be screened by the Transportation System Administration (TSA).

"We had a problem (Sunday), yeah, it's an automated system. It took a couple hours to actually carry the luggage on. But everything got screened." Duncan said Monday. "There may be a few bags that miss a flight. It's up to the airline. Airlines choose to either wait for luggage."

Staff writers Jessie Bonner and Julio Ochoa contributed to this report.

© 2007 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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