Kim Stearns, spokeswoman for the Medford airport, stands on a baggage conveyor that will carry luggage to a new automated explosive detection system, the first of its kind to be installed in an Oregon airport. - Bob Pennell

Flight safety: It's in the bag

The Medford airport will be the first in Oregon to get an automated baggage system that will check for explosives while speeding up security.

"It'll be faster and it has less human power involved," said airport director Bern Case.

The federal Transportation Security Administration will pay 95 percent of the $2.1 million cost of the system, which will be housed in the new baggage handling area next to the $35 million terminal building that is under construction. County commissioners, who unanimously approved the baggage system Wednesday, agreed to pick up the remaining 5 percent.

Case said the airport budgeted to have a manual baggage system that would have required a lot of lifting. "It would have meant a lot of bad backs," he said.

The new system will mean most luggage will stay on a conveyor belt from the check-in time to the point where it is placed on the planes.

Case said the new detection equipment will allow most bags to be processed without being opened. Only bags that contain suspicious-looking items will be opened. The system also will automatically check oversized bags such as golf clubs or skis.

Because work is well under way, Case said it is going to be a little more difficult making sure the automated luggage system is up and running when the terminal opens in January 2009.

"We're going to have to scramble to make it meet our timetable," he said.

Tina Burke, spokeswoman for TSA, said the investment in the Medford airport by the local community convinced TSA officials to pay for the new equipment.

She said Medford will get the new system before any other airport in Oregon. Redmond and Portland are scheduled to get it later, she said.

Though the new system will ultimately require fewer workers, Burke said it doesn't mean any of some 50 TSA workers at the airport will lose their jobs. Rather, the work force will be reduced through attrition over time.

"It will eventually result in a fewer number of officers required," she said.

In the meantime, a full contingent of workers will be required while the bugs are worked out of the new system, said Burke.

The average age of a TSA worker is 44, and back injuries have been a problem, said Burke.

With many airlines now charging for a second bag, passengers are cramming more into one piece of luggage, making it more difficult to lift.

"That was an unintended consequence," she said.

When one or more workers gets injured, it also means fewer people staffing the lines to check baggage, which slows down the operation, she said.

The system for inspecting luggage is similar to the computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan devices used at many hospitals.

In addition, software can detect suspicious-looking items while weeding out other substances that previously had to be checked by hand. For example, the new equipment will allow operators to better identify something like a jar of peanut butter and avoid opening the luggage and swabbing the jar for possible explosives.

An older system that swabs the bags to detect explosives still will be used as a backup for really large objects such as kayaks, he said.

Automated baggage systems are being retrofitted into other airports around the country as a way for TSA to use fewer workers and cut down on the risk of back injury among workers who lift luggage all day. A 2004 U.S. Department of Labor study found TSA workers were among those who had some of the highest incidence of back injury.

The system originally designed for the baggage area would have required TSA people to lift each bag at least two times.

Case said he told TSA officials it would be better to install the new system now, rather than waiting to replace the existing system in a year or two.

Adroit Construction Co. of Ashland, which is in charge of the construction project, already has installed much of the conveyor system, which transports luggage from the airline check-in area to a baggage carousel near where planes will be parked.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or

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