New Baggage Handling System Ready for Fort Lauderdale's Peak Season

Robert Nordstrom
Published in: 



Project: In-line Baggage Handling System

Location: Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Int'l Airport

Owner: Broward County

Cost: $32 million

Funding: $14 million (passenger facility fees); $18 million (TSA grant)

Timeframe: 20 months

Project Oversight: Southwest Airlines

Engineer of Record: G&T Conveyor Co.

BHS Equipment Manufacturer:

G&T Conveyor Co.

BHS Installation: G&T Conveyor Co., Jordim Int'l, Dato Electric

BHS Controls: G&T Conveyor Co.,

Brock Solutions

General Construction: Whiting-Turner

Architectural & Engineering Consultation: GRAEF

Structural Engineering Consultation: De Los Reyes Engineering

Program Management: AvAirPros

Motors & Reducers: SEW Eurodrive

System Specs: 8 explosive detection machines, 7,100 linear ft. of conveyor, 685 drives, 5 slope plate units, 10 vertical sorters & 22 power face diverters

Capacity: 2,000 bags/hour/side

Noteworthy Detail: New system was constructed directly above the fully operational existing system.

As a key transit point for cruise ship passengers, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) experiences pronounced surges in traffic January through April. Previously, the seasonal peaks taxed its baggage handling capacity - primarily due to the slow, cumbersome outbound baggage handling system (BHS) in Terminal 1.

But this year stands to be different, thanks to a new $32 million in-line BHS ushered to completion through a partnership between Southwest Airlines and the airport.  

"We had tremendous baggage problems in Terminal 1," recalls Kent George, director of aviation for Broward County Aviation Department. "All of our baggage screening was being done manually."

That's when Southwest Airlines, a prime tenant in Terminal 1, stepped forward to assume oversight of the design and construction of a new BHS. Before 9/11, Southwest did not generally take the lead in these kinds of projects, explains Jimmy Dickerson, manager of the airline's Security Technologies Group. After 9/11, however, Southwest created a new department to work with TSA at airports in its markets. The group connects with manufacturers to stay current on leading technology and works with TSA to determine and establish best practices, explains Dickerson.

"We don't view ourselves as a contractor and don't set ourselves up to run jobs," he relates. "However, if doing so benefits us and ultimately our customers, and we believe we can help the airport in an area where perhaps it is struggling, we feel it is worth our time, effort and money to develop a system to screen customers' bags efficiently and effectively."

When Demand Exceeds Capacity

From a screening perspective, the outbound baggage system in Terminal 1 simply could not handle any more volume during peak periods. When buses from a cruise depot would dump a mountain of bags curbside, demand would exceed capacity, and the manual BHS was quickly overwhelmed.

"It was a real struggle to accommodate huge surges on cruise weekends," Dickerson remembers. "It required tremendous staffing. We were handling bags multiple times. And the bag profile at Fort Lauderdale is unlike any place else: They are big and heavy; I call them 'apartments.'"

Early-bird passengers add another local twist. Travelers with evening flights often come directly to FLL after disembarking their cruise ships at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning and want to check their bags immediately.

"In the interest of customer service, we tried to accept bags at any time," explains Dickerson. "But that taxed our system as well."

Rising Above it All  

  While the problems were obvious, the solution was not. Building a new in-line BHS in the same room where the existing system was operating required a complex design. Nevertheless, the 20-month $32 million project finished on time and within its budget.

Most of the construction was performed between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m., when the outbound BHS was shut down for the night.

Martin Ineichen, senior project manager for G&T Conveyor Co., describes the bag room as an "interesting space" that presented "complex challenges." G&T was the engineer of record, manufacturer and installer of the BHS.

The 420-foot by 120-foot room with

35-foot ceilings is essentially split into two mirror images: the east section handles baggage from three ticket counters and three curbside drop-off points for Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways; the west section supports input from the same sources for Continental Airlines, Virgin America, Allegiant Air and Frontier Airlines. Because construction took place in an operational baggage room used by six airlines, a phased construction plan was implemented and temporary conveyor lines were installed to feed the operational makeup units.

The new BHS was built directly above the existing baggage area. Approximately 9,300 square feet of mezzanine was suspended from grid work held by massive steel I-beams installed near the ceiling.

"Most people think of a mezzanine as being supported by columns rising from the floor," Ineichen relates. "We didn't have access to the floor; we needed the real estate. So we constructed a hanging system."

The 7,100-linear-foot conveyor path spans four levels, and the overall system includes 685 drives, five slope plate units, 10 vertical sorters and 22 power face diverters. TSA provided eight explosive detection machines for the new system.

Before construction began, G&T used three-dimensional modeling to design the system, including catwalks, access points and locations for hangers and drives. The process helped identify possible conflicts with HVAC, sprinkler pipes, lighting and electrical outlets.

"No other bag room has a system like this," Ineichen exclaims, noting that seven-foot head clearance and a series of catwalks, ladder and stairs make the system "very operational and maintenance friendly."

"You can walk upright throughout the system," he raves. "It is a very unique design. When we started this project, we called it 'the impossible task'. No one was convinced that it could be completed in a 20-month timeframe. As a team we did it, and we're very proud of it."

Bring on the Cruisers

With the new BHS fully operational in July, the airport has a few months to run the system before the peak cruise season begins - a time when loads traditionally reach 1,400 to 1,600 bags per hour. Each side of the new system is designed to handle up to 2,000 bags per hour, which allows room for additional growth.

Doug Webster, Broward County Aviation Department's director of administration, believes that mutually advantageous partnerships like the one between FLL and Southwest are becoming more common.

"It's such a productive approach for getting a system built and running in an effective and timely manner," Webster observes.

 "Everyone is happy with the system," Dickerson agrees. "We're pleased, TSA is pleased and Broward Country is pleased. We're looking forward to the start of the upcoming peak season this January."



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