Soaring Miami International Airport baggage-handling system costs aren't first increase
By Risa Polansky
An up-to $46 million cost increase to the complex baggage-handling system for Miami International Airport's new north terminal comes on top of an added $70 million spent to comply with federal requirements for the system.
The Transportation Security Administration agreed to reimburse the county up to $54 million for the work done on the bag system to meet 2006 guidelines, and legislators are pushing for another $11 million.
But new security administration requirements from 2007 mean an added $12 million in work, part of an up-to $46 million contract increase with Siemens Energy & Automation that county commissioners approved at a special committee meeting last week.
American Airlines found about $29 million in needed improvements during a simulation that showed that the system, designed before the Sept. 11 attacks that drastically changed travel regulations, "would not have worked as intended" without certain tweaks and upgrades, Aviation Director José Abreu said at the meeting.
The almost one-of-a-kind baggage system is meant to handle up to 7,200 bags an hour with conveyors totaling about 10 miles.
Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz piped up after the committee unanimously OK'd the cost increase without discussion.
He acknowledged "we're being held basically hostage in this deal" because of the importance of the required system changes but asked officials to sit down with the airline so the county won't have to shoulder the whole burden.
The county itself has also requested changes to the baggage system, such as fire and security doors to meet current codes.
And, officials want to set aside $5 million for testing the intricate system.
In total, there are about 60 requested changes.
The county's Aviation Department has negotiated prices for 11 of those, meaning the true cost increase is unknown as talks continue.
It could total as much as $63 million, but a $17 million allowance built into the project contract covers part of the increase.
In an interview Monday, Mr. Abreu called the baggage-handling system the "brains" of the nearly $3 billion new north terminal.
"If the building would be the body, the baggage system would be the brains," he said.
The whole idea of the new terminal in the first place was to increase efficiency.
Now, American can use each airport gate an average of 4.5 times a day.
With the new terminal and its state-of-the-art baggage system, "they'll be able to more than double that," Mr. Abreu said.
The fully automated baggage system is to contribute by scanning each piece of luggage and routing it directly to the appropriate gate.
"I do not know any baggage system more sophisticated than this," he said.
Generally in an airport bags go to a pier to be sorted and distributed.
This system not only sorts and delivers the bags itself, it's designed also to send them to an early storage room for those passengers with long layovers, among other features.
And, because the system design was conceived before the 9/11 attacks led to stricter luggage handling and screening procedures, it has been and is being tweaked to comply.
Though the system itself is wholly automated, officials will screen suspect bags.
And the 10 miles of conveyors are set up so that if one bag raises a red flag and needs to be rerouted for inspection, there's no domino effect — the rest of the bags keep moving.
Mr. Abreu said he loses sleep over the system's intricacies.
"The more sophisticated, the more propensity for things at least on the outset not going perfect," he said.
But that's why the plan is to keep the old baggage-handling system running for up to two months once the new one is complete "to make sure all the kinks are worked out," he said.
Bag system delays are to push the terminal completion back another five months to September 2011.
The north terminal revamp, an American Airlines project the county took over in 2005, is set to be done seven years after its original end date and is to come in at about three times the original $900 million project cost estimate.
But Mr. Abreu noted that the initial projection didn't consider that the airport would have to continue operating the terminal amid the construction — like naming a price for rebuilding a busy road without factoring in the cars.
Still, he said, there's no doubting the north terminal is overdue and over budget.
But, he said, the bulk of the facility will be up and running in the fall of 2010 because the latest delays will truly only impact the federal inspection area.
Domestic travelers and international departures will have the benefit of what will appear to be a fully functioning new terminal early, he said, but international arrivals will "have to hang in there."
The north terminal project has seen successes this year.
Seven new gates have opened, and the mile-long terminal's "front door" opened in early November in the form of curbside check-in space, ticket counters and security checkpoints — part of 290,000 square feet of new construction.
But the new ticket counters were meant to connect to the troublesome bag-handling system.
Because it's not ready, ticketing agents are operating from temporary counters in front of discreet walls that separate the provisional counters from the permanent fixtures.
The area appears finished while work continues behind the scenes.