Orlando Airport's Large Screening Machines Will Be Moved to Free Up Space in Ticketing Area

Mar. 20--Like other airports across the country, Orlando International is working to transform the way checked baggage is handled by passengers, airline workers and security screeners.

A $140 million project is under way to move the behemoth baggage-screening machines that have monopolized space in front of OIA's ticket counters since the months after 9-11.

Today a passenger -- or curbside agent -- must carry the bag into the airport and to the airline ticket counter for it to be tagged. Then the passenger or agent lugs the bag to one of the machines, and a security officer screens it before it is sorted and routed to its destination.

Translation: At least three separate people touch the bag and carry it to three separate areas before it is loaded onto its flight.

After the project is complete, the process will end with a handoff of the bag from the passenger to the ticket agent behind the counter.

"The in-line system will help us return to the sense of normalcy we had pre-9-11," said Brian Keene, Continental Airlines' director of airport services. "It will make the terminal run better. Sometimes we can get into very long lines that block up the hallway."

The bags will still be screened for explosives and other prohibited items, but it will take place behind the scenes through a system of conveyor belts designed to speed the process and limit security risks.

In addition to Continental, American Airlines, Alaskan Airways, US Airways, Northwest Airlines and Spirit Airways will benefit from the first two phases of the project, scheduled to be complete by the beginning of next year.

"The process will be faster getting the bags to the flights," said Steve Gardner, the airport's interim executive director.

That's a relief for parents Paul and Naomi Stanton of West Point, N.Y., who were lugging bags as they also navigated their three children, ages 5, 4 and 1, through the airport on a recent morning.

"Trying to do monkey wrangling and bag pulling at the same time is difficult," Paul Stanton said with stroller in one hand and luggage in the other as he dropped his bags at the security machine.

"You can see the sweat on us," added Naomi Stanton.

The airport is building additions onto two sections of the terminal that will house the Explosive Detection System machines, large devices that work like medical CAT scans to ferret out unusual densities and shapes inside bags.

If a bag is considered suspicious, a gate pops up on the conveyor belt and directs the bag to a separate room for further screening. Security officers will use the computer image to evaluate the bag and use a hand-held wand to test for explosive traces.

The Transportation Security Administration has said explosives are its top priority and last year revised its prohibited-items list to allow small scissors and tools in an effort to focus on the "real threat."

Orlando International is expected later this year to receive explosive-detection machines known as puffers or trace portals at its passenger-security checkpoints. Chosen at random, a passenger enters the telephone-boothlike machine and a puff of air is used to shake loose any trace explosive materials on clothes, hair or skin. The process takes only about 15 seconds.

"Explosives on the body, that is a very grave concern of ours," said TSA spokesman Christopher White.

The airport is making room for additional checked-baggage machines on the second level by clearing out office space there. Airport workers will move to a new building to be constructed on airport property later this year.

With more than 34 million passengers expected to pass through the airport this year, ridding the lobbies of the machines is expected to free up extra space for ticket counters and seating areas, expanding the airport's capacity.

Other airports across the country are looking at similar projects to free up terminal space that is consumed by the machines.

A similar project is nearly complete at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. There the project cost $179.4 million with $94 million from the Transportation Security Administration.

In Orlando, the airport is paying for most of the cost with funds contributed by the Federal Aviation Administration and TSA. The first phase is expected to cost $43 million with the new aviation authority office building costing about $12 million.

The project is also expected to benefit the TSA because the machines will no longer each require three security officers.

"It will free up our resources for the other phases that aren't yet complete and for the checkpoint," White said. "We believe it will reduce the number of injuries that our TSO's [Transportation Security Officers] receive because less people are handling bags."

Since terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners in 2001 and the TSA was created, its workers have been plagued with injuries from lifting and carrying heavy luggage.

The new system will require less lifting because bags will be on conveyor belts. There will be a climate-controlled room devoted to screens that show images from bags.

Suspicious bags will be routed to a special area for hand inspections.

"To the passenger it offers the convenience of pre-9-11 and to the TSA and airport, it offers the security of post-9-11," White said.

Beth Kassab can be reached at bkassab@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5448.