Smeared for Takeoff

American Airlines officials want to know why the Miami Herald is covering old news as if it were a breaking story

A week before Christmas, as Peter Dolara, a senior vice president for American Airlines, was hosting a party for friends and business associates at his Coral Gables home, a parking valet pulled him aside. There was a man outside asking a lot of questions and offering money for information about who was at the party, the valet reported, adding that the man was especially interested in whether any politicians or county commissioners were in attendance.

Shocked, Dolara strode outside. Who was spying on his private party? Lurking nearby he found Michael Benages, a lobbyist who works for American's major competitors at Miami International Airport: United Airlines, USAir, TWA, Delta, and Air Canada.

"It was amazing," recalls Ted Tedesco, the corporate affairs counsel for American Airlines (Dolara himself refused to be interviewed for this story). "He was out there trying to take down license plates and offering the valets money for information." Not only that, says Tedesco, "[Benages] told the valets he was collecting that information on behalf of the Miami Herald."

Since October, when county commissioners approved a billion-dollar concourse expansion and renovation at MIA exclusively for American Airlines, a virtual state of war has existed between American and its competitors here. Before commissioners gave the project the final go-ahead, United and the other airlines filed suit against the county, arguing that commissioners were unfairly giving American a tremendous marketing advantage by agreeing to build for the airline what they describe as the "Taj Mahal" of terminals.

The competition has also, through Benages, quietly been attacking the propriety of the commission's decision, raising ethical questions about a purportedly cozy relationship between various commissioners and American Airlines. For months the Miami Herald has been investigating those claims. Its first report appeared February 7, under a front-page banner headline: "Dade commissioners took airline freebies." Added a subheadline: "The first-class seats and bonus frequent-flier miles were bestowed at a time when American Airlines was seeking the county's approval of a $950 million super hub at MIA."

Writers Sydney P. Freedberg and Karen Branch stated that news of the alleged indescretions "broke into the open" during a commission meeting the day before as commissioners discussed how to address the Herald's request that they "disclose their exclusive travel benefits."

The next day, February 8, the Herald published an editorial critical of the commission. Its title: "Metro's high fliers."

For Tedesco and other American Airlines officials, and for the commissioners who were singled out, the Herald's front-page story triggered a major case of dejÖ vu. "It was like I was in that movie Groundhog Day," says Commissioner Katy Sorenson, referring to the Bill Murray film in which the protagonist relives the same day over and over.

In fact, the matter of commissioners receiving airline upgrades had been explored in the New Times cover story "First Class All the Way" in April 1995, more than nine months earlier. But commissioners and American Airlines officials alike feel that the Herald story was more than repetitious. It was, they assert, deliberately slanted against American.

The Herald story made it seem as though American Airlines had only just now repudiated the practice of giving upgrades to commissioners. The effect was to imply that the airline was seeking to ground Metro's high-flying politicos only after its expansion plans at MIA had been approved. Though the Herald story never stated outright that American Airlines had doled out upgrades in hopes of influencing politicians, the verbiage left little room for doubt: American issued Gold and Platinum cards, and was generous in bestowing its perks.

By contrast, the previous year's New Times story had examined a culture of arrogance fostered by some commissioners and county staffers, who continually demanded special treatment A not just from American, but from every major airline that serves Miami. The story laid out a history that went back to the days of Joe Gersten, who once reduced an American Airlines ticket agent to tears in Los Angeles while demanding an upgrade. Commission Chairman Art Teele admitted to New Times that he had received upgrades, as did airport director Gary Dellapa and Amaury Zuriarrain, Dellapa's second in command. Commissioners Maurice Ferre, Alex Penelas, and Pedro Reboredo (who chairs the commission's aviation committee) also acknowledged asking for upgrades and getting them. "I have requested them and I have gotten them," Ferre told New Times almost a year ago. "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."

New Times further reported that according to sources within the aviation department and others familiar with the subject, Commissioner Natacha Millan, former commissioner Larry Hawkins, former county manager Joaquin Avino, and several assistant county managers repeatedly asked for free upgrades from airline companies that do business at MIA.

So pervasive was the the practice of arranging upgrades for commissioners, the New Times story pointed out, that Katy Sorenson had not demanded an upgrade, nor was she offered one: An eager-to-please county employee at the airport had friends at American Airlines, and had seen to it that the newly elected commissioner and her family were bumped up to first class when they returned to Miami from a vacation in Hawaii.

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