MIA: A User's Manual

Is our airport the most user-unfriendly in America? No, just one of four really unhappy landing sites.

 On February 13, Guy Coghlan and his wife strolled out of the baggage claim area in front of Concourse A at Miami International Airport, trying for a taxi. The middle-age couple had just arrived from Surrey, England, via British Airways; they were on their way to visit an old friend in Coral Gables before continuing on a Carnival Cruise to the Caribbean. So Coghlan looked for a ride to the City Beautiful.

"The first cab we tried wasn't sure of the address, so we decided not to go with him as we were short on time," Coghlan recalled. "As we walked back down the line of cabs, a man in a blue uniform, controlling passenger embarkation, asked why we had not gone in the first cab he'd designated. When we explained, he got very angry, and was very rude and aggressive. The next cab came along and [the man in blue] literally shoved us into it. Our second driver decided he didn't want to use the meter; he said it was a flat $20 to Coral Gables [there are three Miami-Dade County rates -- $11, $13, and $16 -- so the driver was lying]. We remonstrated, and asked him to please use the meter. He vigorously refused, so we decided to abandon our journey and get out of the cab again.

"The whole experience was very stressful, especially since the blue-uniformed person blew up again. I was rather unimpressed with the level of service at this airport." Coghlan got the sense that he and his wife were more baggage than persons.

Steve Satterwhite
A merry-go-lucky schoolgirl hops down the moving walkway in the Dolphin garage, which has been shut down for months in a cost-cutting move by the county's Aviation Department
Steve Satterwhite
A merry-go-lucky schoolgirl hops down the moving walkway in the Dolphin garage, which has been shut down for months in a cost-cutting move by the county's Aviation Department

Needless to say, Coghlan's experience wasn't atypical. For years MIA, which generates an estimated $13 billion annually and provides 196,000 direct and indirect jobs for Miami-Dade County, has been notorious as a destination where lawlessness, disorder, public corruption, and customer-unfriendliness reign supreme. (We've got to be good at something, right?) So it's not surprising that your sojourn through our airport is likely to be miserable, whether you are casually dropping off or picking up passengers, or, God help you, actually trying to fly out. And yes, while we continually boast about our $4.8 billion expansion, meant to convert our sometimes insufferable terminal building into a spacious, ultramodern, über-chic "Gateway to the Americas!", the truth is MIA still frequently sucks: J.D. Power and Associates, the global "voice of the customer" marketing company, ranks MIA, Chicago's O'Hare, Newark, and Los Angeles as "below average" in customer service in its 2002 Global Airport Satisfaction Study. It polled 10,250 customers in 46 international airports.

So it's no surprise that Angela Gittens, Miami-Dade's aviation director, still has a considerable way to go in her now two-year-old mission to reduce the rampant political cronyism and insider dealing that have plagued MIA for decades, and to instill a little friendliness and courtesy into the customer relations atmosphere. Following is a traveler's log, a user's manual, if you will, on how to survive MIA. In the spirit of the place, our guide is completely disorganized, with no logical direction.

Airport log, 2/17/2003: Miami International Airport's main terminal building, resembling a horseshoe, consists of three floors, spanning approximately 4.9 million square feet. The first consists of immigration and customs checkpoints, the baggage claim area, and rental car company counters. The second floor houses the airline ticket counters, a couple of local restaurants like Café Versailles and La Carreta, a food court, a few coffee shops, and some rather ordinary duty-free shops. Then there are the infamous and increasingly complicated security checkpoints leading to various domestic and international gates. The third floor is home to a limited number of gates, an immigration and customs checkpoint, and a moving walkway that wraps around the terminal. The third floor is also connected to the airport's two garages, the Dolphin and the Flamingo, via another moving walkway that's been shut down for months. Ground level and two level are also connected to the parking garages via a six-lane roadway that leads out of the airport to other local roads -- like Le Jeune and NW 36th Street, and state roads 112 and 836. Please take heed of the reckless courtesy van operators, taxi drivers, and other Miami motorists who have little regard for the yield signs and crosswalks that traverse the streets connecting the terminal and the garages. Monika Murias, a check-in counter employee for the German-based airline Lufthansa, was almost obliterated by a blue Alamo courtesy bus on her way into work at Concourse G on February 12: "The cars never stop and the police don't do anything!" a flushed Murias shrieked upon safely skipping to the curbside. "One day someone is going to be killed!"

Det. Joey Giordano, spokesman for the Miami-Dade Police Department, countered that the department writes an average of 600 to 700 tickets a month for parking and moving violations at the airport. "If there's an area of concern, like too many accidents or a lot of complaints about speeders, we put extra officers out there to handle the problem."

The road signs leading in and out of the airport are also horrendous, offered David Stungo, an operations manager for a freight forwarder in Miami. "I get a lot of complaints from my employees," Stungo said. "In particular, it seems to be almost impossible to find the area where rental cars should be returned. This is not a new problem as I was able to observe it for myself two years ago and again last month."

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