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Chris Jones

Las Vegas Airport Expands Security Measures

29 March 2005

LAS VEGAS -- Following a nearly four-year interruption, travelers headed to McCarran International Airport will soon be able to resume checking baggage at off-site locations in Las Vegas' busy hotel corridor.

The Clark County Aviation Department has worked the past 18 months to reinstitute remote baggage check-in, a for-charge option that quickly attracted thousands of local customers until stricter security requirements halted operations after the terrorist hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001.

Thanks to new technologies, off-airport baggage checks will resume here Oct. 1, Deputy Aviation Director Rosemary Vassiliadis said. Hotel-casinos initially expected to host the service include Wynn Las Vegas, The Venetian and one property owned by both MGM Mirage and Caesars Entertainment, she added.

The service, dubbed SpeedCheck Plus, will in its first year be limited to customers of America West Airlines, Northwest Airlines and United Airlines' low-fare subsidiary, Ted, which combined to host 28 percent of McCarran's passengers last year. If the pending test is successful, remote baggage checks will later include more host hotels and airlines, including international carriers.

Remote baggage checks are key to preventing too many people from having to use McCarran's already crowded ticket counters, particularly during peak periods, Vassiliadis said. It also frees visitors to spend their afternoons and early evenings without worrying about where to store their belongings before their outbound flight.

"Our busiest time of day is 9 at night to 1 in the morning, but people have to check out of their hotels between 11 (a.m.) or noon," Vassiliadis said. "This will really assist those people."

Travelers opting to remotely check bags will bring their luggage to a participating hotel and pay a still-undetermined fee to Bags to Go, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based vendor the Clark County Commission recently contracted to serve McCarran.

Bags to Go employees would then tag the baggage and store it before transporting it to the airport shortly before its owners' scheduled departure. After undergoing standard tests for dangerous content, screened bags would be loaded onto planes for pickup when their owners reach their destination.

Bags to Go's fee would likely be around $10 to $12 per passenger. Clark County, which oversees McCarran, would receive 50 cents per customer.

Participating hotels must provide lobby space and other infrastructure needs for SpeedCheck Plus kiosks, as well as a secured area for baggage storage. In exchange, they'll get to keep their guests on site longer, Vassiliadis said.

Remote baggage check-in will operate with SpeedCheck, a multiairline self-service ticketing system that debuted at McCarran and the Las Vegas Convention Center in October 2003. Multiple carriers also allow customers to print boarding passes from home or work via the Internet; such travelers could also benefit from remote baggage check-in.

Most current users of those two automated check-in options travel solely with carry-on baggage, thereby avoiding the ticketing counter altogether. Vassiliadis hopes remote baggage check-in -- coupled with McCarran's pending implementation of radio-frequency identification, or RFID, baggage tags -- will let bag-checking customers easily navigate the airport without having to use airline ticketing agents or skycaps.

"It lessens anxiety for passengers not to have to get their boarding pass (at the airport), and not to have to lug their baggage to and from the hotel to the airport," said Vassiliadis, whose airport handled more than 41.4 million passengers last year, approximately 70 percent to 75 percent of whom checked bags.

Bags To Go will be the first company to offer off-site baggage check-in at McCarran since the Sept. 11 attacks. Another local company, Certified Airline Passenger Service, offered similar services from more than a dozen local hotels, serving a record 15,000 passengers in August 2001.

But post attack security crackdowns by the Federal Aviation Administration initially required passengers to check their own luggage. That rendered CAPS, and curbside skycaps hired by the airlines, unable to resume their previous duties at U.S. airports.

The newly created Transportation Security Administration eased restrictions requiring passengers to check their own baggage in early 2002. But several months without customers was too much for a startup business to overcome, and CAPS shut down for good that spring, Jim Gentleman, CAPS' former vice president of marketing and sales, said.

Despite its failure, CAPS' concept had merit, Gentleman said. Before Sept. 11, the company planned to expand its service to 25 Las Vegas-area hotels, and had entered talks to take CAPS to other large U.S. airports.

"We all believed the idea was a smart one. Maybe it was a little bit ahead of its time," said Gentleman, who now works for Schadler Kramer Group, a Las Vegas-based advertising and public relations firm.

One airport formerly in CAPS' cross hairs was Florida's Orlando International Airport, the gateway to that area's theme parks and one of the nation's busiest convention destinations. Since August 2003, travelers there have used Baggage Airline Guest Services, or BAGS, the first off-site check-in service approved by TSA.

BAGS' movement through Washington bureaucratic channels was likely eased by the influence of Rep. John Mica R-Fla., who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee. Likewise, McCarran is also benefiting from the sway of Nevada's representatives on Capitol Hill.

Vassiliadis said McCarran is one of nine U.S. airports to receive a commitment from Washington to pay up to 75 percent of the costs to build a $125 million baggage screening system capable of supporting RFID bag tags. Other airports hope to add similar systems, she said, but most will have to fund such improvements without federal aid.