Unfriendly skies

Sacramento International Airport and federal stimulus dollars will take some of the fear out of flying

What’s in your bag? After Sacramento International Airport’s new baggage-screening system is installed, it will no longer be a secret.

What’s in your bag? After Sacramento International Airport’s new baggage-screening system is installed, it will no longer be a secret.

In the wake of the last decade, air travel has become the target of terrorists the world over. Witness the “Fruit of the Boom” bomber whose attempt to down Northwest Airlines flight 253 on Christmas Day was thwarted after the explosive device in his shorts fizzled out. Nowadays, flying can be an exercise in paranoia—who knows what weapon of mass destruction the baggage handlers missed when loading the plane?

The new state-of-the art baggage-screening system at Sacramento International Airport that will begin construction within the next year should help alleviate some of those fears. The system will be installed in Terminal B as a component of the “Big Build,” the $1 billion upgrade of the 43-year-old airport that began in 2008 and is scheduled for completion by early 2012.

“The Terminal A system was built long after the terminal opened,” airport spokeswoman Karen Doron told SN&R via e-mail. “The new system will be fully integrated into the new terminal and will make baggage transport and screening more efficient.”

The package isn’t cheap, ringing in around $23 million. The federal government is kicking $11.3 million of stimulus funding into the project, which includes the baggage-handling system and an explosive-detection system. The rest will be generated by the airport’s enterprise fund, which includes parking fees, concessions, airport revenue bond sales and passenger facility charges.

The baggage-screening system will be able to detect explosive devices and a long list of other items prohibited by the Transportation Security Administration. It will also speed up the baggage-handling process at the airport. TSA statistics from 2006 show that 535 million pieces of luggage were screened across the United States; 16 percent of those bags were opened for further inspection based on the preliminary check of the bag.

Doron said details on how the new system will work are “security sensitive” and referred SN&R to TSA spokeswoman Suzanne Trevino. Trevino had not returned repeated calls by press time. According to the TSA’s Web site, the agency is currently expanding security measures at airports nationwide, including the random use of explosive-trace-detection technology, as well as advanced imaging technology that uses X-rays or electromagnetic waves to peer beneath passengers’ clothing.

How invasive Sacramento’s new system will be remains to be seen. Vanderlande Industries, a multinational corporation specializing in parcel and baggage handling, won the bid for the system against five other firms. Vanderlande did not return several phone calls from SN&R, but information presented on its Web site provides a glimpse of how the new system might work.

Vanderlande use a five-step screening process. In step one, baggage is scanned by a fully automatic inline X-ray machine. If the bag fails to clear step one, it is then sent to a manual X-ray machine operated by security staff. If the bag fails step two, it is then sent to a more powerful manually operated explosive-detection device. If the bag fails to clear step three, security personnel attempt to connect the bag with its owner. If the bag does turn out to contain explosives, the bomb disposal unit is called in to defuse it.

Despite a decline in passenger revenue due to the economic downturn and rising fuel prices, the airport defends the Big Build project on its dedicated Web site, www.bigbuild.org.

“Sacramento County is the steward of the airport and is responsible to this community and the entire Northern California region to provide adequate terminal facilities for decades to come,” the Web site states. “It takes years to plan, design and build new terminal facilities. Now is the time to make an investment in the future. Long term decisions simply cannot be based on near-term economics. While Sacramento County understands and is sympathetic with our airline partners who are facing record fuel pricing and looking at capacity reductions, those challenges exist independent of the program in Sacramento.”

Officials are quick to point out that the project has no impact on the county’s general fund, since it’s funded separately through the airport’s enterprise fund. After the project is completed, passengers will pay a $15 facility fee, up from the current $9.

Planning and constructing the project has so far created four jobs, Doron said.

“There are more to come, but we don’t know many since we are still in scoping phase,” she said.