Baggage Screening System Puts Pinch on Indianapolis Airport Budget

Stiffer security rules since 9/11 have more than doubled the anticipated price of a baggage-handling system for the planned midfield terminal at Indianapolis International Airport.

Initially pegged at around $17 million, the system might now cost as much as $45 million -- the majority of which likely will be paid for by the airport, said project director John Kish.

Officials have yet to pencil out how they would make up the difference, but the need for more money eventually could drive up the cost of airline tickets and parking for Indianapolis travelers.

The system was designed just to move checked baggage from the ticket counter to the tarmac. Now, machines will screen all baggage for explosives as part of a federal directive that took effect in late 2003.

Construction of the system -- which will circulate baggage using a complicated network of conveyor belts and software, operating much like a smaller version of a mail sorting facility -- is part of a $1 billion airport overhaul to be finished in late 2008.

The federal Transportation Security Administration has pledged nearly $1 billion to eight of the nation's largest airports to help defray the cost of baggage screening systems, considered the most expensive post-9/11 security improvement for airports. But the money is not enough, and those airports are scrambling to make up the difference. Others, such as Indianapolis, might receive no federal funding.

Flaws in airport security drew considerable attention following 9/11, spurring more thorough screenings and the creation of TSA. Equipment, too, has come to play a larger role, as airports have added surveillance cameras and screening checkpoints.

Though the publicity has faded, airports remain saddled with the long-term costs, which come at a time when the nation's airlines continue to wrestle with unstable finances despite record passenger loads.

Expenses have mounted further as airports like Indianapolis move forward with ambitious expansion plans and permanent security upgrades, most notably baggage systems.

"It's in the nation's best interest that we put in these systems," said Ian Redhead, vice president for airport facilities and services for Airports Council International, a Washington-based advocacy group. "The question is: How do we reach the level of security that the government would like to see us at, given that there is no more money?"

Indianapolis finds itself in a particularly difficult spot.

Officials already have been promised about $120 million in federal money to complete the new terminal project. The airport also has received a Federal Aviation Administration grant to install an electronic baggage screening system in the existing terminal, one of the nation's first to screen all checked luggage.

President Bush's latest budget includes money to help airports cover the price of the screening machines but no additional money for the related costs of conveyor belts, sorting software and building space.

"We are in an odd position," said Kish, the midfield project director. "Our ability to get in line for more baggage system funding is probably not great."

In the worst case, the airport could incur more debt, forcing airport officials sometime later this decade to raise rental and landing fees charged to the airlines, or even passenger fees, such as parking rates.

TSA officials said the government marked only the busiest airports for money. Baggage screening and other security costs are much higher at, say, Phoenix, than Indianapolis.

Officials have shelved plans for a rapid transit system at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in order to build a $122 million baggage system and additional security checkpoints, said Sky Harbor spokeswoman Deborah Ostreicher.

"We had all kinds of plans pre-9/11," Ostreicher said. "But with all the security changes combined, we began to plan things differently."

Phoenix, however, is slated to receive at least some federal funding for security. Airports more comparable in size to Indianapolis have not been as fortunate.

Nashville International Airport in Tennessee wants to install a $30 million baggage screening system similar to the one planned for Indianapolis, said Raul Regalado, president and chief executive of the Nashville Airport Authority. Airport traffic has thrived because of the popularity there of low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines, which accounts for about half of all travel.

But Regalado said the airport -- which, like Indianapolis, serves about 8 million passengers a year -- cannot afford the baggage project without federal money.

"It's a lot of money by any standard you use," he said. "Our position and approach is: It's their mandate, their responsibility."

Indianapolis' baggage system is just one of a slew of security enhancements that project officials here have either completed or hope to incorporate in the new terminal.

Officials have used more than $15 million in federal grants to upgrade the existing terminal with a bag screening system, a new alarm network, better surveillance, blast-proof windows and other improvements. Workers erected new perimeter fencing.

In addition, designers have modified the blueprint for the midfield terminal -- adding a second security checkpoint area, boosting the space around the checkpoints, planning for a better camera system and other changes.

Still, the cost of those improvements is mounting.

"We have a limited amount of money, so we have to maximize the use of those dollars," said TSA spokeswoman Amy Von Walter. "Certainly, there are constraints on what can be done."