Eric Sugrue remembers sitting down at his very first computer in elementary school, around fourth or fifth grade. He was immediately hooked. He had always loved working with codes, machines and problem-solving, even as a small child.
Now, about 35 years and several generations of technology later, Sugrue is one of Tampa International Airport’s Airport System Automation Technicians, overseeing about 3,000 computerized motors carrying more than four miles of conveyer belts that swiftly move passengers’ luggage through the airport’s TSA screening system and to the airsides for loading on to the aircraft. It’s one of the most important components of customer service at TPA, and he and his teammates of about 70 seasoned mechanics and operators make sure it’s running smoothly day and night.
“Every once in a while we’ll see some sort of glitch or problem that we haven’t seen before,” Sugrue said. “But the surprises are getting fewer and farther apart the longer we’ve all been here.”
There are legendary stories such as the time a cooler of frozen fish tipped over and dumped fish all over the belts and through the gaps in the conveyer sections, creating a mess that took days to clean. Or when a loaded parachute deployed and got caught in the conveyor belts.
Tampa International Airport was the second airport in the country to use this type of in-line baggage system – Boston’s Logan International got one around the same time – and Sugrue enjoys giving tours. Many are amazed by the elaborate maze bags go through from the time they’re dropped off at the ticket counters to the TSA screening areas to moving underneath the people mover shuttles and then to the airsides– all within about eight to 12 minutes for most bags.
Sugrue was born in Babylon, N.Y., and moved back and forth from there to Florida throughout his childhood, graduation from Clearwater High School. He spent 10 years in the U.S. Navy studying and training at electrical and electronic schools, eventually “morphing computer and electrical” into a post-Navy career. He worked for five years in a cement plant and as a contractor for the TECO power plant before coming to Tampa International Airport as a mechanic almost exactly nine years ago.
Sugrue, an avid reader and football fan who is married and has two children ages 21 and 18, said he first wanted to work at the airport because it was close to where he lives, but he now appreciates it for its interesting quirks and ever-evolving atmosphere.
“It’s an interesting place, and you’re always seeing and interacting with so many people,” Sugrue said. “At the plants where I’ve worked before, you just see the same 50 people forever.”
Underneath all of the rushing travelers and business people coming and going, Sugrue and his team are always there to keep the baggage system humming and tend to any of the other many computer or server needs that help Tampa International Airport run as smoothly as possible. There’s always something, whether it’s a computer glitch or a stuck motor or a cooler of fish.
“It’s dirty, dusty work,” Sugrue said. “We’re here to fix whatever needs to be fixed.”