Aug. 12 — It's a tale of two systems at Tulsa International Airport.
The 5,000-foot-long outbound baggage conveyor system, which carries bags from the ticket counters to the airplanes, is paramount to the airlines whose aircraft can be delayed by its malfunctions.
The 400-foot-long inbound baggage conveyor system, which transports bags from the planes to the east and west baggage claim rooms, is just as important to travelers: A late-arriving bag can spoil a weary person's entire day.
Frequent problems and breakdowns on the two baggage conveyor systems have prompted the Tulsa Airport Authority to undertake a $427,719 study of the five-year-old outbound system while it considers replacing the 30-year-old inbound system.
"We're going to replace the inbound baggage conveyor system with new equipment," said Jeff Hough, deputy airports director of engineering and facilities. "It's just worn out."
The inbound system also was designed for an earlier era's luggage.
"Thirty years ago, the average luggage was hard-sided, smaller and lighter-weight," Hough said. "Baggage today tends to be soft-sided with straps, handles, tags and wheels. There is a whole new set of challenges for the system to deal with."
Since the inbound system was designed, federal standards have changed to require 39-inch-wide conveyors, 6 inches wider than Tulsa's inbound baggage conveyor.
But reconstruction of the inbound system to meet federal standards would be prohibitively expensive, Hough and his engineering staff have concluded.
"It will cost $8.5 million to replace the system as is," Hough said. "It would be $12 million to $13 million to build new bridges to give us wider space."
The inbound baggage system begins near the parked aircraft on the tarmac aprons. Airline baggage handlers unload luggage from the planes onto airline baggage carts. The carts are driven to one of several baggage conveyors on the east and west concourses, where the bags are unloaded from the carts to the conveyors.
The inbound baggage conveyor moves the luggage from the tarmac to the second floor of the passenger terminal and through the 100-foot-long Hall of Flags, which joins the east and west baggage claim rooms to the center terminal. The baggage conveyor is enclosed in steel cabinetry on either side of the Hall of Flags walkway.
"Given the limitations of the building space, it's not practical to just widen the existing bridge," Hough said. "But for all practical purposes, building a whole new bridge would be easier to do. But at 50 percent higher cost, we can't justify it.
"We will be able to widen some areas, except the Hall of Flags area. We're going to reconfigure the conveyor to reduce the number of turns and flatten out the inclines."
If a baggage handler places luggage with rollers on the conveyor belt with wheels down, it's an invitation for baggage jams. On the conveyor inclines, the luggage wheels will spin, piling up bags behind it. It's a problem that occurs on nearly a daily basis, officials said.
When the system functions as designed, the elapsed time between an airline employee placing a bag on the conveyor belt to its arrival in the baggage claim room is three minutes, Hough said.
Many of the delays travelers experience in receiving their luggage in the baggage claim rooms can be traced to the airline baggage handling process, Hough said — from the unloading of bags from the planes to the carts and the unloading of carts to the baggage conveyor.
"It used to be, when airlines had all kinds of manpower, they had people dedicated to the baggage conveyor process," Hough said. "Today, these people are moving jet bridges, opening (aircraft) doors, helping wheel chair-bound people, fueling planes and loading baggage on departing aircraft.
"That's the reason bags don't get to passengers fast. Their bags are sitting out there."
Plans are under way to replace the inbound system's electrical motors, belts, supporting structure and electrical controls. A request for bids on the project will be made in the next few weeks, Hough said, and construction should begin early next year.
"We're getting to the point of metal fatigue and other problems where you just can't fix it anymore," Hough said. "You can drive a car 150,000 to 200,000 miles, but at some point you start putting maintenance into it and having reliability issues.
"At that point, you just need to buy a new one."