Smeared for Takeoff

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

Regarding the complaints that her front-page story lacked context, Freedberg points out that it was written under deadline pressure: "We had to go with what we had."

For his part, Benages feels that if anyone is the victim of a smear campaign, it's him. He denies spying on the home of Peter Dolara. He lives less than two blocks away from the American exec, he explains, and was walking his dog along an adjacent golf course when he noticed the party and stopped to take a look. He adds that he never offered the valets any money to reveal who was inside.

"That is absolute bullshit," echoes Barry Davidson, the attorney for the five airlines Benages represents. "He was out there walking his dog. He wasn't out there for any other purpose. I can't believe American would even raise this as an issue."

Benages says American Airlines and some of the commissioners are trying to cast him as the villain in order to deflect attention from the commission's decision to hand American $950 million worth of renovations. He has hired an attorney, Benages adds, and is contemplating a lawsuit.

He's not alone. Sources say that several commissioners, incuding Teele and Ferre, have also retained counsel. And one of American's attorneys in Miami, Richard Weiss, is threatening legal action owing to rumors being circulated about him. "I take this very seriously," says Weiss, regarding a rumor that while he was representing American Airlines in front of the commission, Weiss was also representing Joaquin Avino, who was negotiating a job change from county manager to the engineering firm Wolfberg Alvarez. Weiss says he received a call about that subject from the Herald's Freedberg.

Another rumor involves descriptions of lavish parties thrown by American Airlines in the late Eighties, at which free airline tickets were handed out to every guest, including several local politicians. While not admitting or denying that such events took place, American officials privately say it is not uncommon for American to throw such parties in a city where they are building a new hub A as was the case in Miami in 1989 -- and that it is done as a marketing tool to introduce civic and business leaders to American.

The common thread through all the rumors and reports is the notion that American Airlines gains its clout through subterfuge or bribery. And while such suspicions are certainly not out of the realm of possibility in Dade County, absent from the Herald's recent reporting has been an explanation of the role American Airlines has played in Miami during the past six years, and the power the company wields through its sheer size and community presence.

In 1989 American had only a token operation at MIA -- fewer than 300 employees and only a handful of flights. But as Eastern Airlines headed toward financial ruin and Pan Am trod equally shaky ground, community leaders began courting American Airlines chairman Robert Crandall. Knight-Ridder, the Miami Herald's parent company, was active in the wooing process. The Herald even flew Crandall to town to deliver the keynote address at the Florida Company of the Year luncheon, a Herald-sponsored event. Throughout 1989 the Herald's business pages were filled with glowing stories about American, with headlines such as "American reaches for the world," "American spreads its wings," and "America's strongest airline." (American officials theorize that their competitors have succeeded in bullying the Herald into writing more critical stories by accusating the paper of being too closely aligned with American in the past.)

Tabbed as the area's economic savior, American purchased more than twenty Eastern Airlines routes within a span of a few months and announced its intention to turn Miami into one of its domestic hubs and the center of a planned expansion into Latin America.

"What we have done in Miami over the last six years is one of the most remarkable stories in the history of the airline industry," boasts American Airlines spokesman Alan Becker.

American now operates half of all passenger flights at MIA -- more flights serving more destinations than the combined efforts of Pan Am and Eastern in their prime, according to Becker. American employees in Miami now number 10,000, with an annual payroll of $345 million, Becker adds. That, he says, is the source of the airline's Miami muscle.

In 1993, when the commission first gave approval to the expansion project (at the time it carried a price tag of only $500 million), the county's aviation director, Rick Elder, strongly opposed the action. Several days later, after American officials publicly stated they could no longer work with him, Elder was forced to resign his post.

American's profound influence was also evident this past October, when Metro commissioners approved the airline's revised expansion plans. Commission chambers were filled with hundreds of American employees; the company also hired a dozen of the county's most powerful and influential lobbyists, including Phil Hamersmith, Julio Rebull, Eston "Dusty" Melton, Bobbie Mumford, and Sergio Pereira. The plan passed by a vote of nine to three.

Using fees paid by all of the airlines, Dade County will spend $950 million over the next seven years to build a new concourse, known as the "Super A" terminal, that will be used almost exclusively by American Airlines planes and passengers. It will feature a train system, a moving walkway, and a high-speed baggage sorter.

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