Ottawa airport sets up high-tech screening system

In an effort to comply with impending federal regulations, the Ottawa International Airport has commissioned a $14.4-million baggage-handling system that can sniff out explosives.

The system responds to Transport Canada rules that

require all Canadian airports to have a screening system in place for all “”hold bags”” by the end of 2005.

This means all bags destined for the bellies of aircraft at Canadian airports should be pre-screened for any outlawed materials. While passengers have been screened for decades, not all bags in all Canadian airports have been screened in this fashion, said Pierre Lanoix, the airport’s vice president operations.

Developed by U.S.-based FKI Logistex, the system consists of a maze of conveyor belts and a software-driven ability to monitor all hold bags in real time as they travel from check-in counter to domestic and international aircraft. Airport staff can monitor the system online in real-time and are instantly alerted to any problems.

In the event of a mishap, the system can automatically divert transient bags to other conveyors and carousels while pinpointing suspicious bags, according to Don Anderson, FKI Logistex’s director of airport systems.

“”If something fails, we know right away,”” added Lanoix.

Previously, if the Ottawa airport’s old baggage system collapsed, staff had to haul out transient bags manually, he said. “”The other system was a straight on-off switch conveyor, so this is a huge jump.””

The system becomes especially important during the busiest time of the year: Christmas. On December 19, 2003, 8,000 bags left the airport, Lanoix said, adding the Logistex system promises to ease such hectic days by doubling the airport’s handling capacity.

The system will likely come in handy for other instances as well, Lanoix said, referring to last month’s bomb scare that shut down the airport for four hours.

Geological equipment in a hold bag was flagged as suspicious during the airport’s regular X-ray screening procedure. Close to 500 staff and travellers were affected by the evacuation. Some passengers complained the ordeal was handled inefficiently.

The new equipment, which is operating in the airport’s new $407-million passenger terminal, will likely mitigate such events, Lanoix said.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., people looked at security screening in a different way, Anderson said. Other airport infrastructure projects were put on hold as the screening of all hold baggage took priority, he said.

Evidence of this came from strict aviation rules, such as one in the U.S that requires any planes landing in American airports to have matched luggage with each passenger prior to takeoff.

Toronto’s Pearson International Airport has responded to this requirement by using WiFi-enabled barcode scanners at its new terminal. The scanning system, provided by HP Canada, takes an inventory of luggage before it’s loaded onto planes, ensuring only the bags that have been checked are placed in the hold. The real-time system also ensures that each bag that’s placed on a plane matches a passenger on that aircraft.

“”(Typically), money earmarked for airport improvement funds has gone to pay for security screening. There was a huge push for this from (governments),”” Anderson said.

“”For the most part, I think that edict has been met, however some things are still not automated. At many airports, particularly small and medium sized ones, you see a lot of these huge (X-ray) machines sitting in the lobby because they destroy the passenger flow of an airline terminal. We’ve been trying to get those machines back behind the wall . . . making the process automatic rather than labour-intensive or manual as it is in the lobby.””

Aside from Ottawa, FKI Logistex has baggage-handling machines stationed at airports in Boston, Jacksonville, Tampa, Indianapolis, and Las Vegas.

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