Southwest's Growth Leads to Changes at Orlando Int'l

Faster-than-anticipated growth by Southwest Airlines, combined with new security rules that prompt passengers to check more of their luggage, will add $3.6 million to the cost of Orlando International Airport's new baggage conveyor and security system.

That's a fraction of the overall $185 million price tag for the three-phase project, known as the In-Line Baggage Screening System, which will streamline the way checked luggage is screened for explosives and routed to airplanes.

But the cost increase reflects some of the significant changes that have affected the airline industry this year.

"We're trying to get ahead of the curve, and it reflects the continued growth of Southwest Airlines," airport Deputy Executive Director Chris Schmidt said.

The original plan called for a single conveyor belt with a capacity of 1,800 bags an hour, which would have been adequate for "many years" given industry conditions when the project was first designed, according to a memorandum distributed to members of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

Now the airport expects to exceed that capacity by 2009, partly as a result of increased flights by Southwest, which holds the largest market share in Orlando, and partly because of the recent security ban on liquids of more than 3 ounces in carry-on luggage.

Southwest has grown substantially in Orlando during the past two years to more than 100 flights per day. According to airport statistics, the airline carried 6.5 million passengers in and out of Orlando in fiscal year 2006, up by 1 million from fiscal year 2005.

Total passengers at the airport increased this year by almost 2 percent, to 34.7 million.

The increase in people plus the security change in August, which temporarily banned all liquids and gels in aircraft cabins, has taxed the checked-baggage system in Orlando.

Southwest's properties manager, Randy Gillespie, said the new system will bring much-needed improvements.

"We'd like to have it yesterday, but that's not real," Gillespie said. "When it comes online at the end of the next year, we'll be ecstatic."

Once the baggage project is complete, passengers will notice major changes near the airline ticket counters in the main terminal. For starters, the SUV-sized explosive-detection machines now stationed near the counters will be moved out of sight and connected to the conveyor system. Moving the machines behind the scenes will allow the airport to take back the 15 percent of its lobby space that it gave up to accommodate the detection system after 9-11.

With the new system, passengers will no longer be required to lug their bags to one of the machines once a ticket agent tags it. Instead, the agent will simply place the bags on the conveyor system behind the ticket counter, as in pre-9-11 days.

The $3.6 million worth of changes to the project's second phase include adding a second conveyor belt and upgrading the equipment that reads luggage tags and sorts the bags for flights. The changes will add 151 days to the second phase, delaying its completion until December 2007.

The project's first phase, which affects American and Continental airlines among others, is scheduled to be finished by the end of March.

The final and third phase of the project, which will affect Delta Air Lines and others in the airport's southeast quadrant, has not yet begun.

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