$200 million, 10-mile-long baggage system takes off at Miami International Airport — finally
By Scott Blake
Is it a technological marvel or technological mishap?
That's what Miami International Airport and its chief carrier, American Airlines, aim to determine as they conduct a 60-day trial run of the airport's highly automated and complex baggage handling system.
Since the trial began March 20, the system had some operational "hiccups," said Miami-Dade Aviation Director Jose Abreu, but there have been no major problems.
After the trial, the goal is for American Airlines to permanently move from using the airport's old baggage system to the new one.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," Mr. Abreu said.
Asked about the trial, American did not say much.
"American has been working with our partners at Miami-Dade Aviation [Department] to test the baggage handling system," American spokeswoman Martha Pantin said in a statement.
"The system is being evaluated and adjusted to enhance performance and to ensure that it is capable of handling our hub operation," she said.
The county has spent more than $200 million on the new baggage system. It is capable of screening and transporting 4,800 bags per hour from a check-in area to all of the North Terminal's current 47 gates, using a completely automated system of 22 explosive-detection machines and more than 10 miles of conveyor belts.
The system is so intricate, Mr. Abreu said, that it can track a single unidentified or misplaced bag as it moves from point to point.
During the trial, some glitches that the system has experienced can be "expected in a startup of this magnitude," he added. "Siemens [the contractor] and American are working with us."
During an initial trial in April 2011, the system went into "gridlock" and was deemed a failure. More adjustments and test runs followed.
Still, American remained hesitant to use the new system, concerned that a breakdown might cause a major disruption at its Miami hub.
Prior to the current trial, the new baggage system had been inactive for months while American continued using the old one, which Mr. Abreu described as "outdated" and said it has delayed completion of the airport's North Terminal construction.
The current trial came about after Mr. Abreu and other county officials and American executives held a mediation session in late February intended to quell escalating tensions over the stalemate.
American wanted the new high-tech baggage system years ago, and the county eventually gave the airline control of the contract for the system's design and installation. The county has since taken back control of the contract.
Problems with the system have cost the county millions of dollars in additional expenses for extra work and the related delays in completing the North Terminal.
American, meanwhile, has said another failure of the system could expose it to millions of dollars in losses as the company tries to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Miami International spokesman Greg Chin said, "American has said that they will decide within the next 60 days whether they want to make further upgrades to the system."
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