Tourism & Cruises

Robots move bags around new $324 million MIA luggage system, speeding up screening

A yellow, stainless steel topped table glided across the cement floor of the 18,000-square-foot space carrying a checked suitcase. No human attached.

The table pulled up to a screening station and parked in front of Shonte Hardwick, an officer with the Transportation Safety Administration at Miami International Airport. The table’s “headlight” turned red, meaning a TSA officer had flagged it for further review. Hardwick put on her latex gloves and grabbed a pair of pliers to break the bag’s lock. Inside she found two bottles of rum, two blocks of cheese and two jars of seasoning — all tested and OK’d for travel.

Hardwick slipped a notice of inspection inside the bag, repacked it, and then replaced the lock with a zip tie. The table glided away, its light now green as it dropped the bag back on the conveyor belt on its journey to its plane.

The new automated porters are part of a $324 million remake of MIA’s baggage system designed to make baggage handling three times faster than before. The new system debuts this month.

Before the renovation, Hardwick had to lug 50-pound bags around the screening room. The 17-year MIA veteran said she suffered muscle spasms after three to four hours on the job.

“This has made it a whole heck of a lot easier,” she said. “We appreciate it.”

The new baggage system includes nearly nine miles of new and rerouted conveyor belts, 12 new explosive detection machines, 52 new baggage screening stations, 102 new robot tables, and a reconfigured screening room. Parsons-Odebrecht is leading the construction. TSA can now screen 7,000 bags per hour, speeding up the journey from ticketing to airplane for checked bags by three times, according to MIA’s director, Lester Sola. The system is a crucial part of the airport’s overall expansion plan.

Forty-six million passengers are expected to travel through the airport this year — one million more than last year. Sola said the automated baggage screening system is needed to increase the airport’s annual capacity to 77 million passengers by 2040.

“In order to stay ahead and build that capacity, you have to build infrastructure like this,” Sola said.

The bulk of the project’s $324 million budget goes to construction, which began in 2017, according to a monthly airport status report from the county. TSA provided a $101.2 million grant, the largest grant the federal agency has awarded in seven years. The Florida Department of Transportation contributed $13 million.

Eighteen airlines are currently using the system, and another 32 will transition when it is fully operational in September 2020, servicing concourses E, F, G, H and J. American Airlines, the airport’s largest carrier, has a separate system.

The new system’s robot tables are replacing some of the work being done behind the scenes at MIA, but still, the agency is hiring, said Dan Ronan, the airport’s Federal Security Director.

“The efficiency that this system gives us, as well as the reduction in staffing needed because bags are being moved by robot tables and not people, allows the airport to plan for the growth it’s going to see over the next 15 years,” he said.

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Taylor Dolven covers the tourism industry at the Miami Herald, where she aims to tell stories about the people who work in tourism and the people who enjoy it. Previously, she worked at Vice News in Brooklyn, NY, where she won a Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of NY for a national investigation of police shootings.
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