MIA: A User's Manual

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

Airport spokeswoman Inson Kim has heard the complaints about the rental car return signs before. "We've put up a considerable amount of color-coded signs around the airport roads to help people find the rental car companies located off the terminal," Kim insisted. "Other than that, there isn't much we can do."

Yet a drive-around located only one sign, as you leave the terminal, near the FPL chiller plant, headed for 836; names of rent-a-car companies were slapped together in different colors, and the sign was sandwiched between an overgrown bush, recently planted palms, and two dark green metal signs with the following message in white letters: "DADE COUNTY MAYOR ALEX PENELAS & The Board of County Commissioners welcomes you to Greater Miami & Dade County." The sign didn't have any markings indicating what streets the rental return facilities are on, or any indication of where drivers should go -- east? west? north? -- what??

If you're parking your car, use the Dolphin, and go to the third floor; there you can access first the garage's moving walkway, then the terminal's moving walkway. But oops, oops -- the Dolphin's moving walkway is shut down! Been down for months! This is more than a minor inconvenience for handicapped people like Dodi Conser, a coordinator for Boston-based Holbrooke Travel, a company that helps elderlies find their way in strange cities. A lot of handicap parking spaces have been roped off as a security measure too, since 9/11, to keep people from parking their vehicles within 300 feet of the terminal (plastique deep in a building does more damage). Conser, who once worked for Eastern Airlines, says the garage walkway is crucial to the handicapped; they are now forced to make long treks from their cars to enter the terminal, in pain and discomfort: "I have worked at this airport since 1961, and find the walkway being down so long ridiculous." She said the Aviation Department told her the walkway cessation was a "cost-cutting move."

A skycap informs this family that their baby is not considered carry-on luggage
Steve Satterwhite
A skycap informs this family that their baby is not considered carry-on luggage
Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub? No, just one of the several confusing signs at MIA
Steve Satterwhite
Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub? No, just one of the several confusing signs at MIA

"One day I saw this guy with a broken leg, on crutches, struggling to get inside the terminal," she added. "He was hobbling all the way. It was painful to watch."

Once you get to the functioning walkway in the terminal, warned several frequent travelers who didn't want their names used, you must be wary of antsy airline employees on the lookout for the next Mohamed Atta. One enterprising old fellow in an American Airlines uniform, for example, grew suspicious of my intense note-taking as I got off the walkway at Concourse B. I guess my black hair, tan skin, angry-looking eyebrows, and scruffy five o'clock shadow made me look more menacing than I felt. I approached the gentleman, whose blue eyes glared inquisitively. "Hi, I'm writing a story about MIA," I said. "Can I ask you a few questions?"

"That depends," he said, deftly covering and then removing the name badge from his shirt pocket. "Who are ya, and what are you jotting down?"

"Well, I'm a reporter for Miami New Times ..."

He cut me off: "Let me see some ID." I handed him a business card.

"How do I know this is really you?"

"Here's my driver's license," I responded, but that only made him more leery.

"Your license says 'Frank,' but your business card says 'Francisco.' I bet your green card says your name is Pancho!"

I rolled my eyes at him, before he made a "spic" joke or something. I moved on.

The old boy tottered over to a husky Hispanic-looking security guard and pointed in my direction, covering his mouth as he spoke. The security guard shrugged him off, evidently not buying it that I was with al Qaeda.

I descended a ramp and moved through International Arrivals, then down an escalator to the second floor, where literally hundreds of air travelers were congregated, waiting to check luggage, or grab a bite, or try to read; others just paced anxiously, looking for their gates with that craned-neck extension you only see on ocean liner docks or in major airports.

Meanwhile Miami-Dade County police officers were apprehending a Japanese tourist with far more lethal instruments than my pen and notepad. It seems Atsushi Ishiguro, flying from Jamaica to the Bahamas via Miami, was arrested after he refused to give up an eleven-ounce canister filled with gasoline at a security checkpoint in Concourse D. Two boxes of matches and a barbecue grill were also found in his possession. Ishiguro, whose passport included stamps from Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan, was charged with creating a potential safety hazard and violating airport security directives by state prosecutors. Although the charges were recently dropped, he is now in the custody of U.S. Immigration. (Since airlines regularly take your razor blades and nail files now, and give you the thousand-yard stare while they do, you have to wonder what Mr. Atsushi was thinking. But explanations are not forthcoming from La Migra, as we like to call it.)

Airport log 1/28/2003: I pulled into the easternmost entrance of the Dolphin garage, about 300 feet from the center of the terminal, where Concourse E is located. A young Hispanic woman in a powder-blue short-sleeved shirt and navy blue khaki shorts, wearing black Reeboks and carrying a two-way radio -- the unmistakable uniform of the airport's "landside operations personnel" -- asked me to pop the trunk on my Saturn. The country had just been declared under "orange alert," the U.S. Guv's melodramatic way of instilling panic and ensuring support for the war on Iraq. The woman, petite except for her J.Lo landing pad, began snooping through the trunk. (She was doing this with all the cars, so I wasn't being singled out.) She was looking for anything "suspicious," she said. Meanwhile, I noticed, there were no airport personnel inspecting vehicles coming through the two western entrances of the garage, about 25 yards away. Those entry points run parallel to concourses A and B, so in the interest of being a wise guy, I asked: "How come you don't check drivers entering at the two other ends of the garage?"

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