With many of its luggage technician positions sitting vacant, Austin's airport is set to get a nearly $11 million staffing boost to avoid the possibility of significant baggage operation failures city staff warned are on the horizon.

How we got here

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport's baggage handling system has traditionally been managed in-house by its employees. However, recent turnover has left the airport's airline maintenance division short-staffed on the technicians needed to operate, maintain and repair the baggage system.

While the airport has been able to work with airlines to minimize any negative effects, the staffing situation has already led to some issues on the baggage system. And more notable problems—delayed airplane boardings, increased passenger deplaning, less timely baggage delivery and noncompliance with Transportation Security Administration rules—could soon disrupt ABIA and the broader aviation industry flying through Austin if more staff are not brought on board.

“The Airline Maintenance division at AUS has experienced staffing challenges due to difficulties in filling positions with experienced personnel, resulting in supervisors and superintendents performing frontline staff tasks that are unsustainable,” an airport spokesperson said in a statement. “To minimize negative impacts on the baggage system, the team prioritizes critical needs and requests additional help from other divisions within the airport maintenance and operations teams, which comes at a cost to other essential services and functions. Additionally, the staffing shortage has been exacerbated by increased usage of the baggage system for longer durations and reduced preventative maintenance opportunities.”

The details

On April 13, Austin City Council will vote on a $10.98 million contract with Vanderlande Industries Inc. to provide third-party baggage technicians at ABIA for up to two years. Contract information from Austin's Aviation and Financial Services departments noted the new services will help avoid “premature” or “catastrophic” failures for the airport, travelers and airlines.

Vacancies at the airport have come in part thanks to high demand among Central Texas technology and manufacturing companies for the technician skills needed for the baggage system, the airport said. After several ABIA employees left in recent months, the technician positions have now been labeled as hard to fill, meaning ABIA can provide additional incentives to bring on new employees. The aviation department said it has also been working with the city's human resources office to make sure its roles are competitive in the local labor market.

Looking ahead, the airport is still working to develop a long-term plan for its baggage system staffing beyond the one- to two-year support from Vanderlande if the new contract is approved. The spokesperson said a decision on whether to use internal or third-party employees going forward will be based on the services set to be provided through the contract and the progress of the airport's expansion project.

Expansion underway

The potential contract comes as the airport moves forward with its 2040 master plan expansion and the shorter-term Journey with AUS program featuring a brand-new baggage handling system.

The airport's Journey with AUS expansion initiative will revamp baggage, ticketing and security operations while adding new passenger gates and other improvements. The construction of new TSA screening machines and the development of the new baggage system are already underway.

The first phase of baggage handling upgrades kicked off in November, and the airport said that piece of the project will be completed by October 2024. So far, airport officials said it has cleared some space for that system while utility relocations are underway for the placement of new conveyors and belts. One baggage claim carousel was also shut down and walled off in early April to prepare the area for construction.
An airport fact sheet details the new baggage system expected to be complete in late 2024. (Courtesy city of Austin)
A city fact sheet illustrates how the expanded baggage handling system will support the airport.