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TIA's baggage system 2 years ahead

After getting quick federal approval for its explosive-detection plan, the airport's flying high.

By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 28, 2002

After getting quick federal approval for its explosive-detection plan, the airport's flying high.

TAMPA -- Passengers at Tampa International Airport soon will be running a gantlet of enormous explosive-detection devices that will start showing up in the main terminal just in time for the holiday crush.

Unlike passengers in much of the rest of the country, TIA passengers won't have to put up with the mess for long.

Airport officials have devised a way to get the minivan-sized machines out of the public's way and back behind the scenes starting in February 2003. The job will be completed by November 2003, two full years ahead of schedule.

Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, and Dario Compain, the federal security director at TIA, received approval of the plan from the federal Transportation Security Administration within hours of presenting it Thursday in Washington.

"I'm in line at Washington National Airport to catch my flight home, and my secretary calls me on my cell phone to tell me we just got a fax from TSA approving our plan," Miller said. "I had asked them for an answer within two weeks."

Unless Congress revises its plan, TIA still must be ready by Dec. 31 to screen for explosives every bag bound for the hold of an airplane. That will require detection machinery all over the ticketing level of the Landside terminal. Flying out of TIA during the holidays will be a bigger-than-normal hassle, but it will dissipate quickly.

Managers of most of the larger 429 commercial airports in the country have been complaining for months that meeting Congress' Dec. 31 deadline will create so much machine congestion that passengers will be lined up outside terminal buildings or on other floors waiting to check their bags.

Most airports plan to incorporate the detectors into their baggage handling systems but have only been thinking about the problem for a few months. TIA officials had a head start, because several years ago they designed baggage handling for the new Airside E in a way that could incorporate explosive-detection equipment.

That system will begin operation Oct. 15 when the new airside opens for business. It will move a bag from the point of check-in at the Landside terminal directly to the departure gate. It will take until February to modify the Airside E system to accommodate the detectors.

Instead of rebuilding the complete delivery system for one airside before moving on to the next, all of the systems within the main terminal will be rebuilt first to incorporate the explosive-detectors to get them out of the public's way. Then the streamlined systems will be extended to the airsides.

Miller said all of the airside work should be finished by November 2003.

As the work progresses, the big explosive-detectors will disappear from the ticketing level of the Landside terminal for their new positions.

Until the new systems are extended to the airsides, luggage will continue to be trucked to planes. The exception will be Airside E, which has a complete system.

The Aviation Authority board has approved the change in concept and will vote on funding the modifications for airsides E and D in November.

"The reason we're way out in front is that we had a contract in place to do these baggage modifications," Miller said. "The airlines had already approved it. What we needed was a commitment from the TSA that they will keep up with us and supply the explosive-detection equipment when we're ready to install it. That's what we got this week."

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