Columbia Metropolitan Upgrades Baggage System and Ticketing Lobby

Columbia Metropolitan Upgrades Baggage System and Ticketing Lobby
Kristen Rindfleisch
Published in: 

Columbia Metropolitan Airport (CAE) in West Columbia, SC, recently completed a major overhaul of its baggage system and associated infrastructure. The project includes a new conveyor system, inline screening and renovations to the checked baggage reconciliation area, as well as updates to the ticketing lobby, airline offices and curbside areas. Travelers can now use new check-in kiosks, drop their checked bags at the ticketing counter and quickly head to the gate area.

The project added more space for queueing, replaced the previous aging handling system and increased capacity for both baggage screening and passenger processing. “It’s a much more efficient operation and allows for faster throughput for the bags—a major upgrade for us,” says CAE Executive Director Mike Gula.

The $21 million project was funded with a combination of Airport Improvement Program grants, passenger facility charges, customer facility charges, TSA grants and local funds.

The previous baggage system at CAE was from the mid ’90s and required travelers to transport their bags from the ticketing counters back across the lobby so TSA agents could screen them in one of three standalone explosives detection system scanners. The system was originally added as a stopgap measure to meet requirements set in place 20 years ago, and it severely hindered circulation in the ticketing lobby. “It had been a pretty cumbersome, manual process that we really wanted to streamline,” remarks CAE Director of Facilities and Planning Frank Murray. “It just took us a while to get there.”


Project: New Baggage Handling System & Ticketing Lobby Upgrades

Location: Columbia (SC)
Metropolitan Airport

Project Scope: New 18,000-sq.-ft. baggage handling facility; 5,000-sq.-ft. addition in ticketing lobby & TSA screening area

Key Components: New baggage handling system with common-use conveyors & inline explosives detection; 14 self-serve check-in kiosks

Cost: $21 million

Funding: Airport Improvement Program grant, passenger facility charges; customer facility charges; TSA grants; local funds

Construction: Jan. 2020–March 2023

Project Management, Construction Administration, Civil Engineering, On-Call Engineer: Foth Infrastructure & Environment LLC

General Contractor: Boyer
Commercial Construction

Architect of Record: Miller Dunwiddie

Baggage Handling System Design & Consultation for Contractor Selection: JSM & Associates

System Maintenance: Elite Line Services

Construction Site Inspections & Reporting: JSM & Associates

Drive Motors: SEW Eurodrive

Conveyors: Automatic Systems Inc.(ASI)

Explosives Detection System: Leidos

Structural Engineering:
Chao & Associates

Electrical Engineering: Ohmega

Mechanical & Plumbing Engineering: MECA

Interior Design: 1X1 Design

Self-Serve Check-in Kiosks: SITA

Key Benefits: More efficient bag handling & scanning; updated ticketing counters & kiosks; increased queueing space; improved experience for travelers

In 2017, the airport team began planning needed improvements and received an Other Transaction Agreement from TSA to expedite the design and development process. Funding became available in 2018—not a moment too soon. By 2019, CAE was running out of queueing space because passenger traffic was exceeding the capacity of its ticketing area.

Previously, all airlines at CAE had their own proprietary baggage systems, ticketing locations and gates, which didn’t allow for flexibility when flight volume varied throughout the day. With the new updates, the airport incorporated common-use gates, baggage systems and ticket counters, and also added 14 self-serve check-in kiosks in the lobby across from the ticket counters. “This is critical for improving the airport’s capacity to process passengers by allowing airlines to flex space as needed based on demand,” explains Dave Carpenter, project manager at Foth Infrastructure & Environment LLC.

Foth provided civil engineering for the project and was responsible for developing the design team, coordinating with stakeholders, working with TSA and FAA, and delivering final bid documents. The company also provided construction administration and observation services, and coordinated with airport tenants.

Boyer Commercial Construction acted as general contractor. “We feel very fortunate to be part of such an impactful project here in our state,” says Brian Boyer, president of Boyer Commercial Construction.

Both Boyer and Foth had worked on previous projects for CAE.

Strategic Scheduling

Construction began in January 2020 and was completed in early 2023. Five phases and extensive coordination were required to help operations continue smoothly throughout the construction and facility updates.

During the first phase, crews rerouted major utilities and built the new 18,000-square-foot baggage make-up facility. Carpenter notes that designers right-sized it for the future by making the building as large as possible for the available space. After it was constructed, the team ran a temporary conveyor from the new baggage make-up building into the end of the terminal building and relocated two of the explosives detection system scanners for a later phase. This interim relocation for nearly 18 months allowed passengers to ease into the new flow for ticketing and baggage.

Temporary airline offices were then constructed in the lobby, which allowed for the removal and reconstruction of existing offices to facilitate a more cost-effective work sequence. Additionally, temporary ticket counters were built on the opposite side of the lobby near the front curtain wall, enabling construction of a partition wall to separate the general public from ongoing construction where ticket offices used to be. Carpenter notes that this approach not only reduced costs, but also increased safety. “Everything is about safety, security and the passenger experience,” he emphasizes.

Increasing Efficiency

The airport’s new common-use ticket counters, kiosks and gates allow airlines to flex according to changing traffic volume. When carriers have several flights in a short timeframe, they can expand to multiple positions and process more passengers quickly. When passenger traffic subsides, they reduce back to a more typical footprint of three or four positions.

Renovations in the ticketing area include updated flight information display systems, additional monitors and dynamic signage for customers. “You can’t turn your head and not see where the flights are,” Carpenter says.

After checking in, travelers now simply hand their checked bags to airline staff at the ticketing counters. Employees place the bags on a conveyor belt directly behind the counters, and travelers can head to the security checkpoint—a much more streamlined process than before.

Two automated conveyor systems designed by JSM & Associates, provided by Automatic Systems Inc. and powered by SEW Eurodrive motors carry baggage through inline explosives detection system scanners. The new baggage make-up building has direct access to the apron, which reduces circulation for tugs and helps get bags loaded onto planes so airlines can push back on time. “We’re certainly glad to now have a system that’s really designed to flow with how we operate,” Murray says, noting that the new behind-the-scenes equipment makes a more seamless process for travelers. 

The changes also facilitated staffing efficiencies. Thanks to the automated baggage handling systems, more TSA officers can be dedicated to the security checkpoint. “We’re able to rebalance where our employees need to be,” Murray says. “It’s a better utilization of staff.”

Challenges and Opportunities

All of CAE’s airlines were displaced at one point or another during construction, so coordination was vital throughout the project. The project team worked to give ample notice about each phase of work and explain how it would impact airline staff and operations. “The airport and Boyer Commercial Construction were excellent about it,” Carpenter recalls. “Coordination was key.”

Work that was particularly loud was scheduled at night to avoid disturbing travelers and airport staff during the day.

Approximately half of the project’s overall square footage involved renovations to existing spaces rather than new construction. “Any time you do renovations and you start breaking things down, you find things that you didn’t expect,” Murray says. On this project, for instance, crews discovered unexpected utilities during preliminary sitework, but Foth and Boyer worked with the airport to quickly resolve the issue. The team also split project phases so work could continue, and sourced readily available standbys until permanent materials could be delivered. “We came up with really good solutions for things and didn’t break the bank,” Murray remarks. “We were pretty cost-effective.”

He also notes that the project would have been more challenging without funding and other support from TSA: “They really were great to work with.” 

Variations in grade from the street level to ticketing and out to the airfield required the project team to blend work across three primary elevation levels. “It was a pretty good structural engineering exercise, how we demoed certain things, tied into existing and built new,” Boyer remarks.

Fortunately, the project was able to stay on schedule and on budget, despite COVID-related supply chain disruptions and additional safety protocols required throughout construction. Boyer believes that CAE’s new baggage handling system and facility renovation was probably the largest project in the area that continued during the pandemic. “We’ve got an incredible subcontractor and supplier base here in the greater Midlands area, South Carolina,” he notes. “Everybody was excited to be a part of it.”

Advice for Others

With CAE’s new passenger processing systems in place, Gula highly recommends incorporating common-use technology when and wherever possible. “It is really going to be beneficial to us in the future, especially as new airlines continue to come online,” he comments.

Carpenter cautions other airports to consider the full financial impact of upgrading a baggage handling system. While external funding can help cover initial capital costs, annual expenses for labor and maintenance are not. “You want to take a big-picture look at what your actual cost is related to developing and implementing this,” Carpenter advises.

The new handling system at CAE requires five staff members, who were added through the system maintenance contractor, Elite Line Services. “Maintenance for the full life of assets is important to keeping the airport functioning at full capacity,” Murray notes. The airport projected revenue growth expected with increasing passenger traffic to help ensure that lifecycle costs of recent improvements will be covered.

Creating a team culture was key for CAE’s project, Murray adds. “I felt like the designers, the engineers, the contractors and the various subcontractors were always pulling for each other to the end of doing a successful project for the airport,” he reflects.

Upfront planning and coordination were also essential, says Boyer. “I can’t speak highly enough of Foth,” he says. “They probably spent two years planning and designing this.” Getting buy-in from everyone who would be involved was also critical to staying on schedule, he adds.

Boyer credits CAE for its ability to convey the value of continual improvements at the airport. “They do a great job with outreach and promoting,” he says. “It really is a great place to fly out of, and it’s a much more user-friendly airport than most. We’re very fortunate to have that resource here.”

Next in Line

This summer, CAE is receiving bids to further expand its TSA checkpoint with a fourth lane. The overall terminal will increase in width on both sides—one side for the TSA expansion; the other will likely include a business lounge and outdoor seating area.

The airport is also working on airfield upgrades over the next 18 months. Future plans include relocating the air traffic control tower and renovating the U.S. Customs facility. 


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