United Airlines will spend more than $300 million on a new baggage system at Bush Intercontinental Airport to speed up bag delivery and handle an increasing number of travelers.
The current system for Terminals C and E moves an average of 26,000 bags each day. During peak flying times, such as the holidays, the system can handle 40,000 to 45,000 bags a day. This volume is straining the system and, with more people flying every year, United is investing in an upgrade that can handled an average of 77,000 bags day.
For departing passengers, the new system could mean the luggage of someone arriving a little too close to takeoff has a better chance of making the plane. For arriving passengers, the system can also sort bags staying in Houston and those headed to connecting flights, reducing the time it takes for a suitcase to arrive in baggage claim.
Construction is slated to begin in the second quarter of 2019 and wrap up during the third quarter of 2022.
"We're replacing a 20-plus-year system that's really inefficient," said Rodney Cox, United's vice president of operations for Bush Intercontinental.
The current system has two loops, one inside the other, that move departing bags in Terminal C. And then there are two separate loops doing the same in Terminal E. The systems were built separately and later stitched togetheras United's operations grew.
The new system will replace the separate two-loop systems with one, four-loop system that spans both Terminals C and E. The four loops will be interlaid inside one another like a dart board's bull's-eye. And if one loop goes down, the impact isn't as severe as when there are just two loops.
The new system will have more cameras at various angles, making it easier to scan bag tags denoting the suitcase's destination. The luggage will move on conveyor belts with a robotic arm that pushes bags down the proper ramp.
The new system will automate some other functions, too, such as storing bags that arrive more than two hours before a flight and rerouting a passenger's bags if they chooses to change flights.
"Airlines and airports are definitely investing in new technology for baggage because technology has really evolved," said Mark Ahasic, founder and president of Ahasic Aviation Advisors, a Connecticut consulting firm for airports, airlines and other aviation companies.
And if United is planning for 77,000 bags a day, Ahasic said, then it's likely going to bring larger planes and more flights to Houston. " "It means United is looking to really ratchet up volume in Houston over the long term," he said.
During construction and installation of the new system, United will shut down one terminal baggage handling system at a time, requiring employees to manually take bags to a covered area on the tarmac, sort them and then deliver them to the planes.
Cox said United would find ways to make sure the construction doesn't delay baggage delivery or affect the airline's performance. United's ratio of bags accidentally sent to the wrong destination is 2.53 for every 1,000 bags, a 14 percent year-over-year improvement. "Our customers are counting on us to do that," he said.
Construction of United's new baggage system will somewhat coincide with the Houston Airport System's plans to redevelop its international terminal. The Airport System's $1.2 billion project will essentially combine Terminals D and E by 2024.
Cox said the projects are separate, but United will work with the Airport System to make sure construction doesn't happen at the same time and same spot. They will also work together to make sure the two projects complement one another to improve traveling in and out of Houston.
"United wants to invest in the future experience of our customers," he said, "and the growth of our hub."