The first section of a vast, underground baggage-handling system designed to prevent terrorists from using luggage to blow up planes will be turned on this weekend at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
The "inline" system features CAT-scan/X-ray bomb-detecting machines and a complex system of conveyor belts that whisk bags from ticket counters to loading areas near the planes. The system should make bag processing quicker, more secure and require less labor than manual systems, officials said.
D/FW's first section -- Terminal E1.5, which handles bags for Continental Airlines -- will be turned on at 6 a.m. Sunday in what officials call a "soft opening." The official opening will take place Monday morning.
"Although the passengers won't notice anything, state-of-the-art equipment will screen their bags and move their bags from the lobby to the loading area," said Andrea McCauley, spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration.
The public will not be allowed to see the system.
Terminal E1 -- Northwest Airlines -- will be turned on in three weeks, followed by Terminal B2.
In August, the first noticeable customer service difference will take place as the Terminal C system is turned on. In Terminals A and C, passengers must lug their own bags through the security area to have them screened.
"With the system in place, you just drop off your bags at check-in instead of dealing with a separate screening process for luggage," said Jim Crites, D/FW's executive vice president of operations. "And it's beneficial to the TSA because it's more efficient and more secure in terms of the screening process."
Such systems, which largely automate baggage-screening, have been sought for U.S. airports since terrorists blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Design and construction of the systems -- at least at some of the larger airports -- were accelerated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
While the post-9-11 airport industry continues to struggle with funding for the systems, D/FW was able to obtain hefty federal grants early to build a system here. (Only nine U.S. airports have such "letters of intent.")
Since then, construction has moved along, although some design and contract issues linger. For example, officials say unresolved contract negotiations will mean Terminal A's inline system won't be operational for at least another 18 months -- late 2006 at the earliest.
The system will be operating at the rest of D/FW, including Terminal D, by the end of this year, TSA officials said.