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It’s a whole new bag

Wed., Dec. 22, 2004

Travelers leaving from Spokane International Airport this week are being urged to arrive early. In addition to Christmas week crowds, some of Spokane’s busiest airlines are crossing their fingers, hoping newly installed baggage-handling systems operate smoothly.

“I’d urge people to come out to the airport 90 minutes ahead of time,” said Todd Woodard, the airport’s communications director.

The baggage-handling system project comes to about $15 million — $10 million for the conveyor belts and motors that take checked bags and deliver them to five, $1 million explosive-detection machines.

Two of the explosive-detection machines went into operation in October on the C concourse, which serves Alaska and Horizon airlines, and the other three will start operating in January, according to airport officials. The machines use X-rays to look inside bags and detect any dangerous objects.

In the meantime, nearly all the airlines in the airport’s main terminal are working out minor glitches as they transfer from a simpler baggage system to the new, sensor-controlled conveyor system that’s been installed over the past few months.

As it’s being installed and tested, the main terminal’s conveyor system, invisible to the public behind the walls of the ticket counters, has been subject to mechanical and software glitches. That’s caused some departures to be delayed, said Woodard.

Among flights delayed last weekend were some offered by Southwest Airlines, the busiest carrier at Spokane’s airport.

“Southwest has the newest (baggage-handling) system,” said Woodard. “And so it’s going to take a little longer to test and work out problems.”

Other airlines affected in the main terminal include America West, United, Delta and Northwest, said Woodard. Until the explosive-detection machines in that terminal are switched on in January, all checked bags are hand-inspected by federal airport screeners.

But when the conveyor system shuts down, as it has lately, bags cannot be moved from ticket counters to hand-inspection rooms, said Woodard.

The C concourse, where the two EDS machines already in use have been operating flawlessly, has not seen any flight delays due to the conveyor system, Woodard added.

Kevin Jones, Southwest Airline’s Spokane station manager, said he didn’t want to discuss the disruptions caused by the new system. He said not one Southwest passenger has missed a flight due to the mechanical snafus.

“And the people operating the system are constantly improving it. I’ve seen drastic improvements,” he said. Christmas week and Thanksgiving are the two busiest travel times of the year at the airport, Woodard noted.

He said an added factor this year is Christmas falling on a Saturday.

“That effectively lengthens the travel week” and adds extra airport congestion, he said.


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