Augusta, Ga., Airport Team to Observe Screening System in Florida

Augusta Regional Airport officials are headed to Jacksonville, Fla., today to learn all they can about a cutting-edge screening system they say is crucial to landing a low-cost carrier.

Aviation Commissioner Ernie Smith said he suggested the trip because Jacksonville International Airport was the first airport in the country to install a fully automated inline baggage screening system.

As opposed to the trace detection machines Augusta Regional currently has, the costlier system makes use of X-rays and CT scans for increased efficiency.

Mr. Smith said the maintenance staff members in Jacksonville are "pioneers in their field."

"They can tell us what they do, how they do it, the type of system that's best for our sized airport," he said. "If you want your car to run well, you want the best mechanic. That's what these guys are."

Altogether, six aviation commissioners and Augusta Regional Assistant Director Tim Weegar will make the trip this morning, returning by the afternoon.

Commission Chairman Cedric Johnson, who will be traveling, said it made the most sense to simply charter a jet to Florida rather than driving and staying in a hotel.

Based on funding requested at the last Aviation Commission meeting, the cost of the trip must not exceed $2,000. An exact travel budget has not been set.

According to Mr. Smith, Augusta Regional has no shot at attracting a low-cost airline without the inline system.

"Low-cost carriers make their money based on volume. You have to have a screening system that can process the kind of volume they want," he said, explaining that trace detection machines simply cannot. "And you have to have what they need when they get here, not after."

Now that Continental Express has announced it will pull service after Oct. 30 and both Delta Air Lines and US Airways have announced major financial troubles, officials have said the addition of a low-cost carrier is even more important.

The problem remains price.

Whereas trace detection machines cost about $40,000, an inline baggage system can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $3 million, depending on whether it's fully or partially automated.

Mr. Johnson said the airport is waiting to see whether the Transportation Security Administration approves funding the system before finalizing plans. In the meantime, the commission has approved spending about $100,000 to strengthen the floors and upgrade the electrical and cooling systems.