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Benjamin Spillman

Travel and Tourism: Leaders of the packed

22 January 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- People like Barry Manilow, Penn & Teller and Pete "Big Elvis" Vallee make visiting Las Vegas a memorable experience.

People like baggage handler Tony Pelham make sure visitors take home more than just memories.

Pelham is one link in the chain of people, conveyors, carousels, carts, radio transmitters and computers that moves an estimated 40 million checked bags annually through McCarran International Airport, the nation's fifth-busiest airport.

The baggage chain starts even before passengers reach the airport, in places like The Venetian, Luxor and the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The chain is considered finished when passengers and their baggage -- like the heavily taped cardboard box as big as a two-drawer filing cabinet Pelham recently hoisted onto a Los Angeles-bound jet -- touch down in the same place at the same time.

On Jan. 12, the day after the International Consumer Electronics Show ended, Pelham stood on the tarmac in a cold wind and estimated he'd loaded several hundred of the approximately 125,000 bags that moved through McCarran that day.

An increase in air traffic and new security restrictions for carry-on bags makes life for Pelham and everyone else who handles luggage more complex -- and for a better workout.

"People can't carry stuff onto the airplane," Pelham said shortly before he started moving a heap of bags from a battered cart onto a conveyor and into an America West 737 with 134 people on board. "People just put more stuff in their bags."

Not only do passengers carry heavier bags, they also bring weighty expectations.

Airline workers say nothing frustrates travelers more than mishandled baggage.

"I think people are definitely more upset about their bag missing than a flight going on time," US Airways customer service representative Lorrie Cappelli said.

Therefore, unplanned plane changes can be stressful for passengers who are worried about their bags, Cappelli said.

"Some people say 'I don't want to go if my bag isn't on the flight,'" she said.

Ensuring that passengers don't get separated from their bags is the responsibility of the airlines and, to a lesser extent, airports.

For the most part, airline workers are responsible for accepting and tagging bags and getting them to the right place.

Since 2000, the number of complaints per 1,000 passengers about mishandled baggage has increased 22 percent, from 5.29 to 6.44, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports.

During that same period, the number of people flying on major carriers increased about 10 percent, the DOT said.

The number of mishandled baggage complaints is down from 8.80 per 1,000 passengers in 1988, the first full year of DOT baggage records.

Kenneth Button, a George Mason University professor who studies airlines and baggage handling, said at most airports the technology hasn't improved since bar codes were added to luggage tags.

"I think it is the next thing they are going to start modernizing at airports," said Button of baggage procedures. "The technology is probably there, it is just a matter of spending money. The question is who is going to spend it."

Button said, in general, airlines rely on the baggage infrastructure provided by airports.

"Ultimately the flying public have to pay for it," he said. "And people don't want to pay higher tickets now."

That means systems can vary greatly between airports.

"Basically the airports supply what the airlines pay for," Button said.

McCarran international Airport, which handles more than 38 million passengers annually, is one of two airports in the world that use radio frequency transmitters, called RFID, in luggage tags. Hong Kong is the other.

The tags look like regular luggage tags but have a device embedded inside that sends out a radio frequency. The frequency can be picked up throughout the airport and is fed into a computer system so bags can be tracked to their exact location.

The radio tags are an improvement over bar codes because they are easier for machines to read, according to Swanson Rink, the Denver-based company that installed the system. The company says bar-code readers fail to pick up as much as 30 percent of luggage, mostly because it requires line-of-sight reads.

That means bags that aren't read by a machine need to be diverted through manual security and handling processes.

The radio frequency system, by contrast, doesn't require a clean line of sight and that means more than 99 percent of bags can be routed through handling and screening procedures automatically.

McCarran has also recently installed a $150 million system of 32 automatic explosive detection devices to replace the sport utility vehicle-size screening devices in the airport concourse that sprung up in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The federal government covered 75 percent of the cost for the new devices, which are out of customers' sight and can process bags four times faster than the machines in the concourse.

"You actually had to carry your luggage to the individual machines in the lobby," Clark County Department of Aviation Deputy Director Rosemary Vassiliadis said. "We're taking that back behind the wall again."

Other changes at McCarran aimed at moving bags more efficiently include a system called Speed Check Advance that lets people check bags at The Venetian and Luxor, the convention center and, eventually, at a new rental car center that will open in late March. The service costs passengers $20.

The system uses a government-approved private contractor to pick up bags at participating locations and transport them to the airport ahead of passengers. The system, which is now limited to Southwest passengers but is likely to expand to other airlines, could eventually handle as much as 10 percent of checked bags, airport spokesman Chris Jones said.

"You don't have to push everyone through at the time the traveler is ready to come to the airport," Jones said.

But until more airports follow McCarran's lead, the benefits of RFID baggage tracking will be limited, Button said.

A national system with compatible tags and readers could make baggage handling between airports more efficient.

"The bag is not usually lost at the airport. It usually goes to the wrong place," he said. "Then you have to find it, get it back and deliver it."