S.J. Airport Officials to Ask for New $6.5 Million Computer System

Mineta San Jose International Airport may serve Silicon Valley and the 10th-largest U.S. city, but the technology that keeps it running has more in common with the Flintstones than the Jetsons.

There's a sign that's about to change.

Today, airport officials hope to push San Jose's airport technology into the modern age by asking the city council to approve a $6.5 million computer system to keep passengers better posted on flight information.

Travelers will find a lot more flight data on banks of 55-inch monitors throughout both of the airport's terminals and will be able to check in at more kiosks, even at San Jose's McEnery Convention Center.

It's a major upgrade for the airport, especially in Terminal C, where finding flight information for airlines such as United, America West and Alaska usually means wandering from gate to gate or squinting at screens near each airlines' ticketing area. Sometimes, those monitors only feature about an hour's worth of take-offs and landings.

``If I didn't know my way already, it would be horrible,'' said frequent flier Khari Middlebrooks of East Palo Alto, on his way to Denver on Monday.

The new networked system will enable passengers to see three hours' worth of information in big, bold type for every flight from every airline at any terminal.

``We're a no-tech airport right now compared to others,'' said Diane Mack-Williams, the airport technology services division manager for the airport.

The new setup would have been a godsend Monday to Elizabeth Peters, a molecular biologist from Ann Arbor, Mich. She flew into San Jose for a meeting with Agilent Technologies and needed to check on the flights of two colleagues flying in on Continental and America West.

``I was looking for monitors to see if their flights were delayed, especially with the bad weather,'' Peters said. ``There were no monitors.''

Instead, she had to plop down at Burger King at Terminal C and wait until one of her colleagues called her on her cell phone. ``I'm glad they are upgrading,'' she said of San Jose.

What's taken so long?

Large, multi-airline information screens are common sights around most major airports, especially in Europe, Mack-Williams said. So what's taken so long for the upgrade at San Jose, an airport so behind the times that travelers still lug their bags onto the tarmac to climb aboard planes out of Terminal C?

This kind of technology tends to get installed as part of a major construction project, said Mack-Williams, and San Jose hasn't had that since 1991. And the technology San Jose hopes to acquire has only emerged in the United States in the last decade, she added.

The technology contract with Orlando-based Air-Transport IT Services is one of the largest of its type in recent years and one of the first steps in the recently approved five-year, $1.5 billion expansion and upgrade of the airport.

Some council members said they don't foresee any problem voting for the new system, provided airport officials can show they've avoided some of the issues that have plagued other big-ticket technology contracts in recent years.

The $8 million contract for the new City Hall's computer and phone network had to be put out for re-bid in 2004 after it was found that Cisco Systems improperly influenced the bid language. And in 2002, the selection process for a $4.7 million police-dispatch system was problematic because the committee that chose the vendor didn't consult the police and fire officials who would be its primary users.

``We've learned some hard lessons. I want to make sure we actually take them to heart,'' said Councilman Chuck Reed, a mayoral candidate. Mack-Williams said her team followed new rules for proposals and included airport and passenger representatives in their preliminary talks.

Single, shared network

Instead of having each airline install its own computer network in a permanent location, as they do now, the new system would use a single, shared network that would receive all flight and baggage information for every airline. That will enable airport officials to feed current flight and baggage-claim data to the monitors, as well as to the airport's Web site and to new self-service check-in kiosks that will be placed around the airport and even off-site, such as at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

Airport officials also will be able to assign airlines to various gates and ticket counters much more quickly and nimbly. That will bring much-needed flexibility to the system while the airport is under construction and temporary buildings are built and then torn down, said Mack- Williams.

``This will be a fully dynamic system,'' she said.

San Jose Mercury News

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