New Ideas Take Flight

Nov. 1, 2007
Its been six years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the ripple effects from that terrible event continue. Immediately after the attacks,

It’s been six years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the ripple effects from that terrible event continue.

Immediately after the attacks, security was front and center. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA, Washington) became the new governing body over airport security. Since then, TSA mandates have impacted baggage handling in every airport in the U.S.

The regulation with the biggest impact on baggage handling operations was the November 2001 requirement that 100% of checked bags be screened by explosive detection systems (EDS). By Dec. 31, 2002, every bag in the hold of an aircraft had to travel first through gigantic, expensive, high-tech EDS equipment.

Then, in August 2006, a foiled terrorist plot resulted in another TSA mandate: no liquids or gels in carry-on baggage. Most industry experts estimate that airlines have seen a 30% increase in checked baggage as a result.

As the initial trauma of Sept. 11 began to wear off, the flying public started regaining confidence, and passenger numbers grew. And, the trend continues. A study by the IBM Institute for Business Value (New York) predicts the number of airline passengers will double by 2020.

That increased volume has been a double-edged sword, though.

“Because of increased security measures, many air- Security regulations and passenger volumes are forcing infrastructure and technology investments at U.S. airports. Here’s ports have neglected to invest in infrastructure—buildings and technology—to handle more capacity,” says Don Anderson, manager of airport systems at FKI Logistex (St. Louis).

Increased passenger volumes, coupled with tighter security mandates, are requiring more complex baggage handling systems. As a result, today’s baggage handling systems are being pushed beyond their limits. Airlines, airports and material handling equipment suppliers have had to join forces to step up to the challenge.

Here are three snapshot views of how airports around the country are adjusting infrastructure and redesigning baggage handling systems to move more baggage while complying with the latest security regulations.

Midway Finds a Way
Until just this year, large EDS machines filled both the north and south areas of the ticketing lobby at Midway International Airport in Chicago. After checking in, passengers carried their bags to a separate area for screening. TSA agents stood next to standalone EDS machines and lifted the luggage onto a short conveyor that moved the bags through the screening machine.

Like other airports around the country, Midway wanted to “get its lobby back,” says Kenneth Hamel, vice president of Webb Airport Systems at Jervis B. Webb Co. (Farmington Hills, Mich.). “Lobbies weren’t designed to hold those machines,” he adds. Plus, that configuration Take Flight was “labor intensive, inconvenient and involved ergonomic issues from TSA agents manually lifting bags.”

Cost was the biggest roadblock for Midway. Space was another. “Airports got partial funding from TSA,” says Hamel, who also points out that EDS machines can be as big as sport utility vehicles.

Over the past year, Midway and its major carrier, Southwest Airlines, have been working with Jervis B. Webb on a large project to get those machines out of the lobby. Southwest Airlines hired a designer to plot out the new path the luggage would take once the EDS machines were moved. That design was passed along to Jervis B. Webb, which would turn paper into reality.

Easier said than done. Midway didn’t have extra space in its existing baggage conveying system to accommodate EDS machines. The north part of the ticketing lobby alone housed 10 of the machines, and that equipment had to go somewhere..

The solution was to convert level three of the parking garage into usable space, according to Hamel. “The floors had to be reinforced, the building had to be insulated and air conditioning was installed,” he says. “Still, it was more cost effective than building new construction.”

Once the parking garage was ready, Jervis B. Webb installed an automated, inline EDS conveyor network, complete with sortation diverts and the company’s Webb-View integrated baggage handling control system.

“From the ticket counter, bags go on conveyors through the walls into the former parking garage,” says Hamel. “The bags are moved through EDS screening machines, and computers bring up images for TSA agents to look at. Suspect bags are diverted to manual search tables.”

Cleared bags move on to conveyor sortation systems, where 10-digit IATA (International Air Transport Association) barcodes are scanned, and bags are diverted by flight number or class of service, Hamel says. Webb-View baggage tracking, management, and control software oversees the delivery of each bag to its departing aircraft.

To minimize disruption, Midway took a phased approach to the $42 million project. The handling system for the north part of the lobby began operating in April, while the south half just came on line in October.

The entire inline system processes up to 5,000 bags per hour and more than 30,000 bags per day, which is more than twice as fast as the previous system that depended on standalone EDS machines, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.

“In addition to freeing up valuable space in the lobby, passengers are no longer required to carry their bags to a separate location when checking luggage,” the department said in a release announcing the new system. “Inline systems are less labor intensive, making more TSA officers available for checkpoint duties or training.”

Sin City Turns to RFID

The TSA requires every checked bag to travel through an explosive detection system before being loaded onto an aircraft.

In Las Vegas, the airport revamped its baggage handling system as part of a project that took three years and more than $250 million to complete.

In June 2004, Las Vegas McCarran Airport signed a contract with FKI Logistex to manage the second and third installation phases of the airport’s new baggage handling screening and sorting system. Earlier in the year, FKI Logistex was awarded the first phase of the project. In all, the contacts totaled approximately $50 million.

FKI Logistex supplied engineering, mechanical hardware, software, installation, training, and testing for all three phases of the project, which involved the inline placement of 42 EDS screening machines from L-3 Communications (New York), according to Anderson. The inline system incorporates dimensioning devices that calculate the 3D geometries of all baggage before it enters the security screening machines.

“A construction company was hired to build new areas for all that equipment to go in,” he says. “Two areas already existed, but three new buildings had to be built to accommodate the screening machines and conveyors. So, another $200 million had to be invested in construction just to build a place to put all this equipment.” Phase three, the largest part of the project, included nearly 1,200 conveyor drives and more than 12,500 feet of conveyor as well as terminal expansions to house the screening and sorting equipment.

Starved for space, airports have had to find creative ways to house the large explosive detection systems required by the federal government.

Most notably, McCarran Airport will be one of the first airports in the world to use ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID-embedded baggage tags for 100% automatic identification and tracking of outbound baggage in the sorting and security screening process, Anderson says. Forty-nine RFID scanner arrays will work hand in hand with track-and-trace technology from FKI Logistex to transfer identification information through the system to the security screening areas. After passing through EDS machines, the FKI track-and-trace technology sorts the baggage to one of 27 sort locations, which include 10 FKI Logistex Maxiclaim II slope plate make-up units. The entire system is controlled by the FKI Logistex Sort Allocation Computer system.

“RFID provides read rates of over 99%,” says Anderson. “With barcodes, read rates can be 80% to 85% because of dust and wear and tear on the tag. That means about 15% of bags have to be encoded manually,” he says. “On transfer bags, read rate can drop to 40% to 60%.” The more often bags are handled, the more barcodes can be damaged. RFID tags increase read rate by eliminating the damage factor, Anderson explains.

The Las Vegas airport is still using barcodes, and will continue to use them indefinitely, so that baggage tags can be read by other airports. The RFID system is already installed and commissioned and set to go live later this year, according to Anderson.

X Marks the Spot in Steel City

To boost read rates without adding complexity, the Pittsburgh airport installed baggage identification and sorting arrays using both omnidirectional and line scanners.

In late 2006, the Pittsburgh International Airport set out to update its 15-year-old scanning system in the north side of the building. Low read rates and high labor costs associated with manual encoding were pushing the airport and its main carrier in the north end, U.S. Airways, toward change. Primary goals of the project were to increase read rates, reduce manual encoding and simplify the system for easier maintenance.

In March, the Pittsburgh Airport went live with a new baggage identification and scanning system that improved average read rate to more than 90% from the previous 50% to 60% average read rate. Eight baggage identification and sorting arrays using Axiom linear laser scanners and Axiom-X omnidirectional laser scanners from Accu-Sort Systems Inc. (Telford, Pa.) are at the heart of the new system.

The new scanning system replaced two tunnel controllers with off-the-shelf Ethernet switches. The eight-head system offers the same read rates as a conventional 12-head system, but at a lower installed cost, according to Chris Baker, senior account manager at Accu-Sort.

Readers scan 10-digit IATA barcodes on tags placed on luggage and direct bags to the appropriate gate for outbound flights and the appropriate carousel for pickup from arriving flights. More than seven miles of conveyors, 86 high-speed pushers and eight make-up units result in a 400-bag-per-minute sort capacity for the airport’s north baggage handling system, according to Baker.

In addition, Accu-Sort’s “Muxless” control software is contained in each scanning head, rather than in centralized controllers, reducing wiring complexity and allowing the scanners to be independent and interchangeable, says Baker.

The hybrid system combines omnidirectional and line scanners, which results in fewer heads but more lasers for better read rates, Baker says. Fewer scanning heads also mean more simple and less costly maintenance.

Because of the TSA’s EDS screening mandate, bags are handled many more times than they used to be, making tags more susceptible to damage. Omnidirectional scanners put out an X laser pattern instead of a line pattern, which results in better read rates, even when barcodes are difficult to read because of poor bag orientation on the belts or print quality on the tags.

“Since the new Axiom and Axiom- X scanners were installed, we average around 800 bags per day in the manual coding area, compared to more than 3,000 bags prior to the installation,” says Larry Liberatore, superintendent for airlines services maintenance. “Read rates are in the mid-90s, even on incoming baggage tags, which often are damaged from handling or weather.”

“Airports don’t print the tags or have control over them,” Baker explains. “The only thing they have control over is the readers.”

“Naturally, since our read rates are up, bag delivery times are down, making the flying public in Pittsburgh much happier,” adds Liberatore.

That’s not the end of the changes at the Pittsburgh Airport’s north side. Just like most other airports around the country, Pittsburgh Airport is aiming to convert its standalone EDS machines to inline systems. This project is already underway and slated for completion in the third or fourth quarter of 2008, according to Liberatore.

“We are constructing a new building, about the size of a football field, that will be connected to the north side and will house the EDS machines and TSA functions,” he says. “Right now, our EDS machines are in the lobby. Once the project is complete, we will run all outbound bags behind walls, where screening will be done, then, they will be rerouted for distribution to their flights.”

Lessons to Learn
Any organization responsible for handling and moving materials can take away a few lessons from the baggage handling system overhauls at the Midway, Las Vegas and Pittsburgh airports. Many operations, at one time or another, experience capacity strain. Sometimes the strain is due to increased volumes. Sometimes, it’s new regulations. Baggage handling experts are coping with both.

Whether it’s through new construction to cope with increased volumes or more reliable scanning equipment to improve read rates, most material handling operations can benefit from taking some time out now and then to find better ways to get materials to their destinations.

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