First Class All the Way

You're a very important person. Someone with influence. A big-shot bureaucrat. A friggin' Dade County Commissioner! And when you travel, you expect those airlines to understand that you want to go first class all the way.

"I have requested them and I have gotten them," says Ferre. "There's no conflict because I don't take them from just one particular airline. It isn't just American. It's also United and USAir. The best of the bunch is United -- they are a dream."

American Airlines, which operates nearly half of all flights out of the airport, used to hold the same appeal for Ferre. At the time he was elected to the commission, in April 1993, American would regularly upgrade commissioners on a space-available basis. "It was real easy and simple and it happened a lot," he explains, adding that he was afforded the luxury treatment on "70 to 80 percent" of the occasions he flew, both for business and pleasure. But a few months ago American tightened its policy by requiring approval of such upgrades from its officials in Miami and from corporate headquarters in Dallas. Following this change, Ferre says, he was only upgraded about half the time. In the past few months, he laments, American's policy has changed once again; now it is even more difficult to secure a complimentary first-class seat.

According to the company's corporate affairs counsel, Ted Tedesco, American's policy shift arose from a novel idea: Why not treat Dade officials "just like every other traveler in the country?" Tedesco, who is based in Dallas, says that for more than a year American executives have been confounded by the seemingly endless stream of requests for upgrades from the county's politicians, commission staffs, and other bureaucrats. "What in the hell are people doing down there?" he asks in exasperation. "It seemed like every day we were hearing about something new. More commissioners. More staff people. Every time someone flew they expected to be upgraded. And when it spread to their staffs, that was too much. We felt we had to do something."

By Tedesco's account, American Airlines has had more problems with rapacious politicos at Miami International Airport than anywhere else in the nation. "Months ago I said that our policy should be not to provide upgrades," he says. In the last six months he has written two memos to top American executives in Miami instructing them to staunch the flow. Tedesco offers two reasons for the memos to Art Torno and Peter Dolara: He was concerned that the practice of handing out upgrades to elected officials could prompt an unseemly ethics investigation; and because American considers upgrades to have real value, the company could ill afford to have the Miami habit spread to other cities.

American officials have even taken the unusual step of visiting individual commissioners to explain how they could use the airline's various frequent-flyer programs to earn mileage toward upgrades. The officials also told commissioners they could buy special stickers -- like any preferred American customer -- that would allow them upgrades when available. "If the president of GM can use upgrade stickers," Tedesco asks, "why can't commissioners from Dade County?"

Despite the education campaign and the memos to Torno and Dolara, Dade county officials have continued to ask for upgrades, says Tedesco. In response to American's efforts to assert control, tenacious staffers have found alternate means by which to wrangle the preferential treatment. "They come at you from all kinds of places," Tedesco sighs. Sorenson's November upgrade, aided by Dickie Davis, is an example. Tedesco says he learned of the incident only recently, and he still hasn't been able to identify the American employee who worked with Davis to facilitate the arrangements. So upset was Tedesco that he called aviation department director Gary Dellapa two weeks ago and screamed and pleaded with him to tell his employees that courtesy upgrades are no longer available through American.

"Why is it Ted Tedesco's job to try and control [commissioners and other county staffers]?" he asks rhetorically, his voice rising in anger. "Why don't they just have a policy and stick to it?" Tedesco says he can understand why aviation department employees and some rank-and-file American Airlines workers might want to please a commissioner or some other influential individual, but county officials, he contends, should know better than to ask. Now American is in the awkward position of having to say no at the risk of alienating key county personnel. "When we deny someone an upgrade," Tedesco notes, "they now think we are making some sort of a value judgment about who they are and how important they are. That's the unfortunate position we are now in."

Blame it on Joe Gersten. The fabled commission reprobate blazed the trail for courtesy upgrades by treating Miami International Airport as his personal fiefdom when he was a county commissioner from 1988 to 1993.

One particular incident is now legendary. Like Sorenson, he was on his way to Hawaii. Naturally he had demanded and received an upgrade on the Miami-to-Los Angeles leg of the trip, but as he checked in at the LAX ticket counter for his connecting flight to Hawaii, he was told he wouldn't be able to receive an upgrade because all first-class seats were taken. Gersten reportedly became enraged. He shouted at the ticket agent that he was a Dade County Commissioner and that American Airlines's fate at Miami International Airport was in his hands -- personally. He told the ticket agent he would have her fired. She was reduced to tears.

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