New regulations could hit Miami airport with delays, cutbacks
By Shannon Pettypiece
Construction of Miami International Airport's north terminal could be delayed for up to a year and airport expansions cut back because federal requirements for baggage screening have expanded the project's scope.
The US on Dec. 31 began requiring airports to screen all luggage instead of the 10% some airports screened. That means Miami International must add a $240 million screening system to its two new terminals, said Aviation Director Angela Gittens.
To do so, designs of the north and south terminals, which broke ground last year and were to open in 2006, must be changed and the Transportation Security Administration must sign off on changes.
Because of delays and the cost to install the devices as airport officials wish, administrators must decide what parts of the ongoing $4.8 billion expansion project to cut, Ms. Gittens said.
Overruns aren't an option, she said, because if the airport exceeds $4.8 billion, it would have to raise airline fees, which could drive away air traffic. Airport revenue funds the expansion.
"The question is: At what point do we price ourselves out of the market?" Ms. Gittens said. "We have to look at what that does to our cost in the competitive marketplace that we are in. At some point, you lose the value of these improvements."
The system Miami International wants is not required though desirable, said Lauren Stover of the Transportation Security Administration.
"We have not mandated airports to construct inline baggage systems. Our mission is to make sure every bag is electronically screened," Ms. Stover said. "As long as it is screened electronically, the location of such equipment is not a concern."
The county's aviation director plans to brief the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners next month on additional costs and the length of delays at two new Miami International Airport terminals caused by new federal regulations.
Meanwhile, Aviation Director Angela Gittens is to testify this week before Congress regarding the impact increased federal security requirements have had on airports.
"I spend more time in Washington than I do downtown because of the active threat this community faces in a way that is so serious that it is frightening," said Ms. Gittens, referring to the impact additional security has had on international trade and tourism.
Installation of new baggage-screening devices needed to scan each bag rather than just some of them will alter the designs of the new north and south terminals rising at the airport, will delay construction at both terminals and cost $240 million, she said.
Ms. Gittens said those changes and the added time spent working with the Transportation Security Administration on the design of the terminals to accommodate the new devices have caused the delays.
"What we are being told is that there are up to a year in delays on the north terminal," Ms. Gittens said. "In December, we didn't have a design. TSA didn't want to approve a design. They didn't want to give us the money for it."
When one aspect of a construction project is altered, it can trigger a domino effect in other areas.
She said the south terminal might be delayed for several months but it is unclear whether delays on either terminal could be mitigated and what the total cost will be.
The Transportation Security Administration has approved all design plans submitted by Miami International Airport, said agency spokeswoman Lauren Stover.
"We have approved all of the designs and have been able to turn them around in the best time that we could," Ms. Stover said. "TSA has worked cooperatively with MIA and has approved all security plans that MIA has proposed."
Miami International's proposed system would place explosive-detection machines and baggage-screening areas behind the scenes in a secure facility instead of in the hallways, as is currently done at Miami International and all but three US airports. It would also have a series of conveyer belts taking luggage from the check-in counter to the screening room to the airplane instead of having it done manually.
The detection devices now are in the lobby near airline check-in counters. After a passenger checks luggage, it is manually taken to the screening machine, where federal security agents scan it for explosives.
The larger machines are roughly the size of compact car. Space is needed to hold luggage waiting to be screened.
In addition to delays, Miami International faces a deficit of more than $170 million because it will not receive federal funds it was counting on to pay for the screening areas in the new terminals, Ms. Gittens said.
Ms. Stover confirmed that the airport probably won't get the funds it wants because the Transportation Security Administration doesn't have the money. But she said that while the airport might have expected to get the funds, no commitments or promises were made.
"TSA made no commitments or any obligations of funds to Miami," Ms. Stover said. "We fully concur on their decision to construct an inline baggage explosive-detection system, as it is the most efficient means of screening bags. We will continue to explore other mechanisms or avenues where we can leverage support for them."