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    TIA looks at faster, cheaper systems

    Hoping to ease delays and put off building a second terminal complex, the airport wants airlines to share counters and gates.

    By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 16, 2002


    TAMPA -- You wait in an endless line at a ticket counter at Tampa International Airport. Your feet hurt, your nerves are frayed by the security hassles, and you worry about missing your flight.

    A few feet away, another airline's counter spaces are idle. If your airline could use those open spots for a little while, the backup would disappear.

    But it isn't possible. One airline can't access its reservations system on another airline's computers.

    Airport officials hope to remedy that problem in a few years with a new computer system that would allow airlines to share not only ticket counter space, but also curbside check-in points and boarding gates.

    The common-use system would cost millions of dollars. But it would speed things up for passengers, increase the airport's capacity and postpone by six or seven years the need to spend billions of dollars to build a second terminal complex north of the existing airport to accommodate passenger growth.

    "Letting long lines form for one airline when the next airline down the counter doesn't have a flight to handle for a couple of hours isn't the best use of the airport's space or the passenger's time," said Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

    The common-use system is one of more than a dozen proposals contained in TIA's new technology master plan, which will go to the aviation authority board next month.

    "Just because something's in the master plan doesn't mean we'll do it," said Sharon Weaver, the airport's director of information technology. "We'll be looking at all aspects of each proposal to determine if there's a cost benefit. If there isn't, we won't do it."

    Clearly, the common-use system carries a tremendous cost benefit.

    Another proposal, a sort of pay-at-the pump plan for parking, would allow fees to be settled with a credit card. But this idea might not make the cost-benefit cut.

    "Business travelers want receipts," Miller said. "Can we come up with something that will let you insert your parking ticket and your credit card, have the charge calculated and deducted and return a receipt in less time than it takes now? I don't know. If we can't, we won't do it just to do it."

    More promising is the notion of creating SunPass lanes at the parking exits.

    "People would have to get used to the idea of keeping a lot more money in their SunPass accounts," Miller said. "Twenty-five dollars isn't going to cover a weeklong parking bill."

    The SunPass system, an automated toll mechanism now in use on Florida's Turnpike, the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, the Veterans Expressway, the Suncoast Parkway, the Pinellas Bayway and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, isn't yet reliable enough for the airport, officials say.

    "Missing a 25-cent toll is no big thing," Miller said. "Missing a $40 parking charge is something else again. But the technology will improve."

    The parking ideas aim to save TIA passengers a few minutes. The common-use terminal system aims to save serious time and serious money.

    But it will face resistance from the airlines.

    McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas created common-use terminals and gates six years ago, the only major airport in the country where the entire facility has been converted.

    "The airlines were somewhat resistant -- oh yeah, and that's the nice way of putting it," said Dave Bourgon, the systems manager at McCarran. "It meant that the airlines had to give up their own computer systems, their exclusive use of space at counters and gates. Airlines don't want to give up anything that's been theirs."

    But McCarran officials insisted.

    "Airlines come and go," Bourgon said. "Before, to make a change, we had to rip up counters and switch out computer systems. Now, nothing changes."

    The economics were key. The common-use system cost $10-million. One new gate costs $13-million.

    "We got a 10 to 15 percent efficiency gain," Bourgon said. "We have 92 gates. For $10-million, we got the equivalent of 10 or 12 new $13-million gates."

    The economics at TIA are more startling, still.

    The terminal complex, which handles 16-million passengers a year, has an absolute capacity of 25-million, a level which will be reached in 2017 or earlier. Miller said he expects the common-use plan to increase that capacity to 30-million.

    "If we can add 5-million passengers to our capacity, we could delay spending billions of dollars -- and that's what it would be, billions -- on a new terminal by six or seven years," he said.

    As predicted, airlines are less than enthusiastic.

    "We would not support such a system at Tampa International Airport," said Katie Connell, spokeswoman for Delta Air Lines, one of TIA's top two carriers. "Things unique to Delta's customer service wouldn't be compatible with a common-use system."

    But the system has worked for Delta, Southwest and every other airline that serves Las Vegas, Weaver said, and it will work at TIA, too.

    This is an example:

    Spirit Airlines, British Airways and JetBlue Airways share a length of counter at TIA. The largest segment is assigned to British Airways because it flies Boeing 777s carrying nearly 350 passengers. Processing that many people requires elbow room.

    But British Airways only schedules four flights a week out of TIA. The rest of the time the spaces are idle. Under the new plan, JetBlue or Spirit could use them to speed their check-in process.

    Each airline would have an access code to the computer system. When the code is entered, the signs above the ticket location would change to match the user, as would the arrival and departure boards behind the counter.

    The changeover cannot happen until the airport finishes its new baggage system, which will take checked luggage directly from the curbside or ticket counter to the proper airside. The new Airside E will have the system when it opens in October.

    All the airsides will have it by 2004.

    It will be what Miller calls a "dumb system," meaning airlines can only use that ticket counter space that is linked to their airsides. Because JetBlue uses Airside D and British Airways uses Airside F, they still couldn't use each other's ticket counters.

    By 2005, the system will get additional automated baggage handling by bar code or radio frequency. All bags would be tagged and sent to a hub, where computerized readers would put them on the conveyors to the correct airside.

    The following year, when the airline leases are renegotiated, the common-use systems would be incorporated.

    The gate areas would be flexible, as well. If an outbound flight were delayed with a mechanical problem and an incoming flight had nowhere to park as a result, it could be redirected to an open gate at another airline. Again, computer access codes will convert all the equipment and signage to the user.

    The system would be paid for and maintained by the airport.

    "At some point in time," Miller said, "we're going to have to tell the airlines that this is the way you are going to operate at TIA."

    Highlights of proposed master plan

    A new computer system would enable airlines to share ticket counter, curbside check-in and airside gate space to alleviate crowding and long lines.

    A system would be developed to allow motorists to pay their airport parking fees by credit card or using the SunPass system.

    "Dynamic" signs would be built along George Bean Parkway to warn of problems or delays or to display important passenger information.

    Signs already in place inside the terminals, such as those on the canopies over the shuttle lobbies and at baggage carousels, would be converted to their dynamic mode so they, too, could carry timely messages.

    -- Arrival and departure boards would be converted to display more flights and more information.

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