Old Baggage System Poses Challenge for Airport Trust

Jan. 10--At 10:45 a.m. on a recent Monday, several dozen passengers on a Southwest Airlines flight from Dallas were waiting for their luggage in the east baggage claim room at Tulsa International Airport.

After a few minutes, the baggage conveyor began spilling suitcases, backpacks and boxes onto the baggage carousel. But then it stopped, followed shortly by the carousel.

For the next 10 minutes, the passengers, their friends and family members milled around, complained and waited for the baggage system to start up again.

Such delays -- the airport's engineering staff refers to them as "baggage claim issues" -- are occurring with increasing frequency, and they must be addressed, said Jeff Hough, the deputy airport director of engineering and facilities.

"It's just an old system that has reached the end of its useful life," Hough said. "Everything, from the belts and chains to the bearings, is 20 to 30 years old. Some parts are no longer available off the shelf. The drive chain on one of the baggage carousels is worn out. It's a part that has to be manufactured at a cost of $20,000 or more."

Hough, the engineering staff and airline managers are viewing maintenance of the inbound baggage conveyor system as some consumers calculate the costs of repairs on an old car.

"At some point, it's just not worth it to keep replacing parts on it," Hough said.

But buying a new system will come with its own baggage: an estimated cost of $8.5 million to install a relocated, user-friendly, easier-to-maintain system capable of handling the larger bags that tend to jam the current 26-year-old conveyors.

The outbound baggage conveyor system, which carries bags from the ticket counters to the planes, was replaced several years ago, Hough said. Now, he said, it is time to look at replacing the inbound system, either by duplicating the existing operation or redesigning and expanding it.

At the next meeting of the Tulsa Airports Improvement Trust on Thursday, members are expected to review the new year's potential capital improvement projects, including the inbound baggage conveyor.

High on the list of concerns is replacement of the passenger terminal roof above the east and west concourses. Hough said the roofs leak.

"When it rains, there are spots in the terminal where we know it's going to leak, where we place buckets," he said. "It doesn't set a good image for the place -- and it's damaging the building."

Federal regulations require that the concourses have fire-suppression sprinkler systems, which they lack. To accommodate the sprinklers, the concourse roofs would have to be raised, the airport staff and consultants said.

Raising the concourse roofs would free space for the installation of skylights, which would brighten the concourses, officials said. Skylights also would extend the airy, glass-walled passenger experience of the new center terminal security checkpoints, opened last spring, officials said.

The Benham Cos. LLC, the trust's architectural design consultant, is expected to review costs and designs of the concourse roof-sprinkler-skylight project Thursday.

"We're juggling these issues, but the baggage conveyor system is very high on our list of priorities," Hough said. "We have to have that conveyor system."

Airport staff members and Benham officials are discussing construction of the baggage system in two phases.

Replacing the six baggage carousels would cost an estimated $1.5 million, the airport staff said. Federal Aviation Administration grants will reimburse the airport for 95 percent of the cost of the carousels, which could be built one at a time without affecting airport operations significantly, officials said.

Replacing the inbound baggage system is more complicated and expensive -- and not eligible for federal funding. Locally generated airport revenue -- fuel and ticket taxes, terminal rents and fees -- would pay for it.

Airport officials project it will cost $6.5 million to replace the system.

"Unfortunately, the system as it is laid out has drawbacks," Hough said. "The way it is set up now, it is very difficult to do maintenance. Also, the system has curves, turns and steep slopes that cause some bags to fall off. It also is narrower than current systems."

The more expensive replacement option, estimated to cost $8.5 million, is to relocate it to permit installation of wider conveyors, gentler inclines, broader curves and increased clearances for ease of repairs.

"The question is whether it's worth the extra $2 million over the 20-year life of the system," Hough said. "But increased reliability means better customer service. Over 20 years, increased customer service is probably a pretty good thing to do."