Jan. 29--If everything goes according to plan, Lexington's Blue Grass Airport will be near the front of the pack when it comes to cargo screening come early March, according to airport officials.
That's when the airport is scheduled to begin screening for explosives in all outgoing freight -- from packages of computer chips to boxes of program prototypes for major U.S. sporting events to bottles of bourbon whiskey -- that is to be shipped in the bellies of commercial passenger planes.
There are "very, very few" airports in the country that screen cargo for explosives to that degree now, said Lanny Miller, Blue Grass Airport's federal security director.
Such screening is a hot topic among federal officials and others these days.
A new piece of equipment will be integrated into the airport's existing inline baggage screening system to help with the cargo screening. The new equipment is called a vertical sortation unit, and its installation will cost $200,000. The National Safe Skies Alliance, a non-profit consortium for the advancement of air travel safety, will foot the bill through a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"Blue Grass Airport's inline baggage screening system was purposely designed so that it could be modified to meet growing demand and provide additional security measures," airport executive director Michael Gobb said, adding that the "innovative security solution" will make the local airport a leader among the country's airports in aviation security.
Blue Grass Airport's $5.1 million inline baggage screening system, installed in 2002 to comply with a federal mandate that 100 percent of checked baggage be screened, uses a conveyor belt to take baggage from ticket counters to a former concourse that was converted to house electronic bomb-scanning machines. The system has been used as a model for other airports.
Currently, most of the freight that is to be shipped from Blue Grass Airport on passenger planes is driven directly from a freight building on Airport Road to the planes by airline personnel. Once the new equipment is in place, those workers will be taking the extra steps of taking cargo from the freight building to the vertical sortation unit and picking it up after it is sent through explosives detection machines.
The vertical sortation unit, which has two conveyor belts that can pitch up and down, is designed so that workers don't have to do so much lifting and to keep cargo from being damaged. Freight will move from the unit to conveyor belt sections already in place and through the explosives detection machines, then come out onto the carousel now used mainly for checked baggage.
"I think it's a real good project. It puts Lexington Blue Grass Airport right there on the cutting edge," Miller said.
Should 100 percent cargo screening be mandated by the federal government, many airports will have to install systems that cost much more than what is being spent at Blue Grass Airport, he said.
Miller said that screening all outgoing cargo on passenger planes at the local airport shouldn't be much of an inconvenience for airline workers and will mean a steadier flow of work for the Transportation Security Administration staff at Blue Grass Airport.
"In the scheme of things, we have a small amount of cargo flying out of Lexington," he said.
Freight brought in the day before it is to be flown out can be screened during slow times, he said.
The cargo screening "will be totally invisible to the customers here, to the passengers," Miller said.