MIA: A User's Manual

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

She didn't miss a beat, and coldly said: "I'm sorry sir, but I'm not authorized to answer that question." She looked like she wished she could have rescinded the word "suspicious" too. Then she barked, "You're free to move on."

As I drove deeper into the garage, I passed dozens of parking slots, many reserved for the handicapped, roped off under the security measures implemented by the FAA. Yet, hypothetically speaking, a suicide bomber could pull into Dolphin at concourses A and B, where there are no security checks, park his car in front of a roped-off parking space, or maybe the bus lane for maximum carnage, and detonate his C-4 funpak.

Tere Estorino, a spokeswoman for the county's Aviation Department, informed me that she was no more at liberty to discuss specific security measures at Miami International than J.Lo had been. "For obvious reasons, I can't go into detail," Estorino said, a little tension building in her voice. "But rest assured that anyone entering the airport, whether to park in the garage or travel our roadways, is subject to getting their vehicle searched." She declined to comment on my hypothetical scenario. Officials for the FAA also refused comment.

A lost passenger finds his way to the customs greeters lobby in Concourse B
Steve Satterwhite
A lost passenger finds his way to the customs greeters lobby in Concourse B
Beware the Triton ATM: It'll take money out of your account but forget to dish out actual bills
Steve Satterwhite
Beware the Triton ATM: It'll take money out of your account but forget to dish out actual bills

After parking my car on the third level, I chanced upon Norman Abril, a Jewish man in his early fifties, who told me parking at MIA is the most horrible experience in the world. "Why are so many spaces roped off?" Abril growled, a shtupped look on his face. I walked to the glass door leading from the garage to the terminal building, got on the moving walkway (the one in the terminal that still operates), and headed for Concourse A. It's arguably MIA's most attractive, with its high ceilings, modern chairs, sparkling terrazzo floor, and windows tinted in blues, reds, and yellows. I kept an eye out for the old American Airlines Colombo guy, because I only let my wife call me "Pancho." I hit the escalator to where passengers were departing for destinations around the world via American Airlines, Air France, AeroPostal, LanChile, Swiss International Airlines, and British Airways. They stood patiently, like camels, mountains of luggage rising around them like low forts. They were waiting to check their bags and then be screened by the predominantly pubescent federal employees of the Transit Security Administration.

I hopped over to British Airways check-in and struck up a conversation with some Londoners returning from a week-long cruise in Cancun. The gaggle included Andrew Westwood, a portly Brit with curly receding brown hair, and a beet-red burnt face (except for raccoon circles around his eyes), who had a few choice words for MIA security. "Do you really feel safer here?" Westwood asked in purest dry cockney. "I mean really, do you? There is no police presence here! At Heathrow, we've got bobbies toting semi-automatics. Visible, like. Big gun like that, that's a sense of security, innit? But here? No armed guards! And supposedly this country is on orange alert?!? Bollocks is what it's on!"

Countering, Detective Giordano said Westwood must have burned more than his skin in Cancun. Although he could not comment on the exact number of MDPD officers on duty at any given time, he said they were "visible." And to be fair, on several occasions I saw plenty of county cops vigilantly monitoring the terminal in concourses C, D, E, and G. I also saw K-9 units guarding the terminal's moving walkway and in Concourse A. "We also have a special motorcycle unit that just handles the airport," Giordano emphasized.

But none carry "visual deterrent"-style automatic rifles, which was what Westwood was "off about."

Airport log, 2/19/2003: Concourse A again. Eleven in the morning, and all the check-in lines are empty except for the crowd at the British Airways counter. I walked toward that group, and ran into Norman Abril again, who told me I'd better watch my back in case security got the idea I was casing the joint. Abril also told me I should ask the Aviation Department about MIA's infamous "clearing customs" problems. "Why can't American Airlines flights [which fly out of A and B] clear customs in the B Concourse?" he demanded. "The other day we landed at B4, and then had to make that ridiculous trek to the E concourse to clear customs. Then, of course, I had to walk all the way back to A to get my car in 2UU [in the Dolphin garage]. Why is this airport so unfriendly? Why is everything such a hassle? The worst part is that it only gets worse, and I see no improvement coming down the road."

Inson Kim, the airport spokeswoman, explained that the airlines determine which immigration and customs checkpoints their passengers must use. Martha Pantin, spokeswoman for American, offered the notion that there isn't much a carrier can do to address Abril's complaint until the north terminal expansion at MIA is completed. It will house 47 gates plus immigration and check-in for American. Unfortunately, today American is using gates in concourses A, B, C, D, and E, but only has access to the immigration and customs check-in in Concourse E, where most American international flights arrive. The Concourse B checkpoints are reserved for international passengers who use British Airways, Air France, LanChile, and other internationals stationed in A and B. "A logistical issue we don't have control over," Pantin shrugged.

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