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King Airport (St Thomas) bogged down with baggage backups
By LYNN FREEHILL
Monday, March 6th 2006  
Reprinnted from the DailyNews (St Thomas)

ST. THOMAS - A baggage conveyor belt that has been broken at King Airport since late January has caused luggage-claim chaos, leaving hundreds of travelers watching and jostling for their bags for up to an hour in overcrowded spaces that airport workers describe as dangerous.

The airport has two belts for incoming luggage, and the remaining functioning one has been overworked and periodically shut down, particularly on busy weekends like Feb. 25, 26 and again Saturday. On those days, passengers on the up to nine flights that land within an hour of each other were forced to retrieve their bags at the tiny commuter baggage claim room at the other end of the airport.

When the short commuter belt, designed to handle the light luggage loads of such planes as the nine-passenger Cape Air variety, also stopped moving Feb. 25, desperate passengers climbed through the opening above the belt to the other side of the wall and shoved suitcases through to a crush of fellow travelers.

Although belt breakdowns have happened occasionally in the past, this is the longest uninterrupted one in memory, airline managers said - and it has fed-up visitors threatening not to return to St. Thomas.

"It has passengers literally climbing all over each other and employees getting verbally assaulted," said Joanne Bohr, who manages 73 employees on St. Thomas who work with cargo, ramp handling and passenger services for Worldwide Flight Services.

Bohr said she sees that employees, forced to carry heavy bags for long distances, are physically overwhelmed - and that anger and frustration are coloring already-tired and hot travelers' impressions of arriving in the territory.

"Our entire livelihood is based on passengers coming in here, and there are a lot of islands competing that are cheaper and easier to get to," Bohr said. "If you add in a hassle factor, are they going to return?"

Terri Thomas, U.S. Airways station manager, was traveling to St. Thomas Feb. 26 on a Boeing 757 packed with 202 other fliers. Experiencing a shutdown of the main conveyor belts firsthand, then crowding into the overheated commuter baggage claim room, made her more sympathetic and upset for passengers, she said.

"I was absolutely shocked at how bad it was. It was very hot, people were upset," she said. "I was miserable - and I'm used to going through the flow of air travel. The situation is unacceptable."

Fixing the problem

Although the airport has a maintenance staff that is always on call, repairing the baggage conveyor belts - which are the original ones installed when the airport was built in 1989 - is difficult. The manufacturer is no longer in business, so replacement parts must be fabricated locally, V.I. Port Authority Executive Director Darlan Brin said Friday.

Brin said that new belts from Alpharetta, Ga.-based Siemens Energy and Automation, Inc., are on order and that he hopes to have them installed within two months.

"Until then we are limping along," he said. "Those are the things people do when things go wrong - you have to go to Plan B. I don't see the big deal."

But Kurt Zimmerman, a business unit manager for Siemens who came to St. Thomas in February to look at the current conveyor belt, said Friday in a telephone interview from Dallas that new belts could not be in place within two months.

"The timeline's all with Darlan Brin right now. We're waiting on his feedback," Zimmerman said. "It's in discussion, but it's not reached a point where he's sent an order in."

After an order is placed, he said, four weeks typically are required for engineering, 12 weeks for manufacturing and another five weeks for installation of a belt system.

Zimmerman said he was not yet certain how much two new conveyor belts would cost, but Brin said he had been given an estimate of about $500,000.

The cost prohibited the Port Authority from purchasing new belts years ago, Brin said.

- Contact Lynn Freehill at 774-8772 ext. 311 or e-mail lfreehill@dailynews.vi.