Seattle-Tacoma Int’l Optimizes Baggage System with Cutting-Edge Screening Technologies

Seattle-Tacoma Int’l Optimizes Baggage System with Cutting-Edge Screening Technologies
Ronnie Wendt
Published in: 

An updated logo referencing the Pacific Northwest is a graphic symbol of what’s new at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). But its most impressive new offering is a back-of-house system few will ever see. 

SEA, operated by the Port of Seattle, just completed the first phase of a $540 million outbound baggage handling project to help it meet current and projected passenger growth. The new system will eventually replace six current individual baggage systems with a centralized handling system that increases efficiencies, including the use of fewer state-of-the-art explosives detection screening (EDS) machines. Ergonomic inspection tables and new conveyors are other key components.  

The time was right for optimizing the baggage system, reports SEA Program Lead Ed Weitz. As the airport ballooned with 39 airlines serving 91 non-stop domestic and 27 international locations, its aging baggage system struggled to handle all of the additional suitcases, duffle bags, baby seats and other items passengers were checking. 


Project: Optimized Baggage Handling System

Location: Seattle-Tacoma Int’l Airport

Cost: $540 million

Funding: $93 million TSA grant; $447 million airport development funds

Strategy: Combine six separate systems into a single consolidated system within the existing footprint

Key Components: 10 miles of conveyor with redundant track; explosives detection screening (EDS) machines from Smiths Detection; mobile inspection tables from Morcon; 600 motors & gear reducers in Phase I, with 4,000 motors expected when all phases are complete; switch-rated plugs and receptacles from MELTRIC Corp.

Processing Capacity: Up to 8,200 bags/hour once all EDS equipment is installed; system is expandable to serve up to 60 million passengers/year

Phase 1 Prime Construction Contractor: PCL Construction

Main Phase 1 Subcontractor: Daifuku Airport Technologies-Jervis B. Webb Co.

Other Contractors: Control Touch Systems LLC (now Intellimodus LLC); Veca Electric & Technologies; M.D. Moore Co. Inc.

“We projected that we would hit 45 million passengers in 2027, but exceeded that projection in 2019,” Weitz explains. Last year, SEA served 51.8 million passengers and moved 453,549 metric tons of cargo. On its busiest day, the airport processed 43,000 outbound bags. 

Fortuitous timing enabled the airport to pick up $93 million in TSA reimbursable grants for the project. Just as passenger bags began exceeding the current system’s capacity, TSA launched a funding program that encouraged airports to swap out aging EDS machines with state-of-the-art versions. The TSA program awarded funds to airports with projects that decreased the number of screening machines needed, and SEA fit the bill with a design that moved from 28 to 16. 

“We have installed eight machines so far,” Weitz reported in May. “They run as fast as the old system with better security and other enhancements, and we will add the rest of the machines as we grow.”

Like other airports, SEA was able to use the special TSA grants for screening equipment and associated conveyor pathways, but not brick and mortar elements, which represented the lion’s share of costs. 

The airport is budgeted to spend $447 million of its development funds to eventually streamline 10 miles of conveyor and wiring, update telecommunications systems, and consolidate six screening systems into a single centralized version. “We can now input a bag at any airline ticket counter, send it through the screening system to a makeup device, and then send it out to any airline throughout the facility,” Weitz says.

The new system vastly improves processing speed, with each EDS machine scanning and analyzing up to 680 checked bags per hour. The centralized system also meets minimum connect-time goals and is designed to boost energy efficiency by up to 30%. “The system runs twice as fast as our old system, offers far better security, is safer for workers, and will meet our needs well into the future,” Weitz summarizes.

Proceeding in Phases

Seeds for the baggage handling improvements were planted in 2013 when the Port Commission authorized the work, and the project grew roots in 2017 as construction began. The initial blooms appeared in April, when crews completed the first of three installation phases.  

Weitz notes that construction suffered setbacks, as most projects do. “The control system failed early factory acceptance tests, and it took roughly six months to get that up to speed,” he relates. “But in fairness to all involved, this system uses components that were never before used at this scale.” 

With up to 70,000 outbound passengers passing through the airport on a typical day, shutting down the baggage system to build a new one was simply not an option. Construction proceeded with the old baggage system operating at full capacity right next to the new installation.  

Understanding the complexity of such a worksite, airport officials opted for a phased construction process to keep existing systems online until new systems were fully operational. “We had to phase the program because it takes so much time to do a baggage system in an operating environment where you have limited work hours,” Weitz explains.

The airport is shaped like a boomerang, with a north end, south end and central terminal. During Phase One, crews installed eight Smiths Detection EDS machines underneath the concourse, but the design allows room for eight more. The airport also added a centralized area for TSA screening operations with ergonomic inspection tables that reduce physical strain for inspectors performing secondary baggage inspections. Workers no longer have to lift bags for inspections. 

Tony Vasquez, project manager for the Port of Seattle, describes Phase One as setting the table to optimize the baggage system, while Phase Two migrates systems, and Phase Three completes the process. “Phase One put in the screening technologies, Phase Two will integrate north-end carriers into the system, and Phase Three will integrate south-end air carriers into the system,” he specifies. 

With Phase One operational in April, SEA began the bidding process for Phase Two, which will add a sortation system and new conveyor systems that connect to the facility’s north end. Phase Three, which will add the same connections to the south end, is scheduled to follow about four years later. 

“We’ve been running the centralized screening system in Phase One for about a month,” Weitz reported in mid-May, noting that decreased passenger volume due to the coronavirus facilitated onloading the new system. With the airport running at just 5% of normal capacity and processing only 1,500 bags per day, baggage system operators were able to work out bugs before SEA resumes full operation.

Old vs. New

The previous system had 10 miles of conveyor belt, 3,000 motors and 28 EDS machines. It included a patchwork of technologies (some dating back to early 2000) and six independent baggage systems designated to serve specific airlines in limited areas. 

The new system, built into the existing footprint, still includes 10 miles of conveyor with multiple bag routes but maximizes throughput with 600 NORD high-efficiency C-FACE helical inline and helical bevel right-angle gear motors that boost belt speeds and redundant conveyor track. (When all phases are complete, 4,000 motors will be in place.) It replaces six separate systems with a single consolidated system that the airport can later expand to accommodate up to 60 million annual passengers. 

“We made everything interconnected and built in redundancy to use the machines at their fullest capacity at all times,” Weitz says. He explains the airport has high volumes from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. followed by a four-hour dip in traffic. Instead of being in constant motion, as the old system was, the new conveyor system runs on demand and saves energy by changing main lines and baggage routes on the fly. 

“We program the energy management system through the control system,” Vasquez explains. “So if we know upstream that we have no more bags coming, the conveyor turns itself off, and restarts as bags move through the system. We also used special belting to reduce friction and other energy-efficient components and expect the changes to reduce the baggage system’s energy use by 30%.”

Smart controls and crossover between the main line conveyors keep bags moving, even when a backup occurs. Currently, the system has two main line conveyors. When the project is complete, it will have four.

“If we get a jam downstream, our control system alerts us, so we can divert bags to another line to move baggage around that area and out for screening and sorting,” Weitz explains.  

The system is also designed to improve reliability by using redundancy to eliminate single points of failure. “The entire project has redundant redundancy,” says Vasquez. “Federal legislation regulates this environment, and we have to meet their requirements. Our maintenance and facility professionals also wanted redundancy. As a result, everything in this system has a backup, if not two to three levels of backup.” 

Crossover components allow baggage workers to shift banks as needed, he adds. When a jam occurs, the system automatically closes the affected zone and reroutes bags to keep them moving. Operators no longer have to shut down the main line to let workers unload stuck bags and transport them past the jam. “We can get the bags to move in an automated fashion,” says Vasquez. “Workers only have to clear a few bags at the specific break point, but the rest keep moving. The system also has reversible conveyors in certain areas to clear jams.” 

Monitoring & Maintenance

Personnel working at a remote monitoring station in the lower level of the central terminal use 10 65-inch video monitors to keep a constant eye on conveyor operations. In the past, workers floated between six monitoring systems in six different control rooms.

The new system sounds an alert when an issue arises, and operators in the monitoring station examine video footage from 700 surveillance cameras along the conveyor line to pinpoint the problem. If the problem is a jam, they reverse the conveyor to clear it. If it’s a mechanical issue, they dispatch maintenance operators to replace the plug-and-play component in question, and the system reconfigures itself within milliseconds. “The downtime is literally how much time it takes to grab the part, bring it to where it’s needed, and plug it in; as opposed to taking a deep dive into troubleshooting the entire system to reveal the problem,” says Vasquez. 

The new system also includes more physical access points, which helps workers cross the conveyor safely to reach areas needing repair. 

“The average response time for a trouble call is now three minutes,” reports Weitz. “Operators also can pull reports to look at different components. If they see problems, they can dispatch workers to perform preventative maintenance, which reduces downtime.”

The various upgrades and design features add up to an optimized system that enhances efficiency and increases handling capacity at SEA—keys to getting travelers’ bags where they need to go in a timely manner. It also demonstrates that sometimes the most important investments are the ones passengers will never see. 


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