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
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
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

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."

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."

"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?"

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 frontof 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.

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.

At British Airways I met Shirley Lau, a typesetter from Singapore, who was returning home after a week-long Caribbean cruise. Lau, who probably weighs 90 pounds wet with change in her pockets, made it to Miami from Singapore via London's Heathrow Airport. Her impression of MIA: "Terrible! You have no signs tell you where to go! In Singapore we have signs in our airport for everything.

"When I got here, I need to take Super Shuttle to friend house, but Miami airport have no signs telling me what shuttle look like or where I can get it!

"I don't know ..." Lau continued, her tiny voice bubbling with frustration. "So I ask people, where can I take Super Shuttle? They tell me go there! I say where? 'Over there!' they say, pointing to an escalator. So I go up [to the third floor, where the terminal's moving walkway is located] and I get lost. I come back down [to the second floor] and go outside and someone tell me go downstairs [to baggage claim]. I ask someone else, who pointed me to bus station [across the street from the baggage claim area in front of Concourse E]. But I still no see shuttle. Then I ask guy in blue uniform [our old pal, the passenger embarker!] who pointed out the Super Shuttle on other side of bus station. Was very confusing experience."

In front of the LanChile counter, Jude Rosen, a 28-year-old mental therapist from Olympia, Washington, traveling to Lima with some friends, was hyper-critical of MIA's services and employees. "Where do I start?" sneered Rosen, a cynical smile informing his lips as he chewed a chocolate chip cookie. "This place is for the birds. No one really knows which end is up." Rosen recounted how, the day before, he and his friends missed their connecting flight to Lima after being given the runaround by airport employees on how to get from Concourse H, where they had disembarked, to Concourse A. "One guy told us to go upstairs and we wound up back at the gates in H. Another guy said we had to go downstairs to the baggage claim, and go straight. But somehow we ended up outside, where a cabbie harassed us, trying to force us into his taxi. So we go back up to Arrivals in Concourse E, and ask another person for help. But he only speaks Spanish! We just looked at each other."

Making matters worse for Rosen and company was that they only had twenty minutes to make the connecting flight. They finally made it to the LanChile counter in Concourse A, only to have Sy, a thirteen-year-old boy with a brain injury who was under Rosen's care, suffer a seizure from exhaustion. Rosen said the LanChile employees panicked and called Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. "But there really wasn't a need to call the paramedics because we knew how to deal with Sy's condition without medical assistance," Rosen explained. "So we ended up missing our flight and had to spend the night in the airport hotel. We spent an extra $350 and 24 hours of aggravation, because people couldn't point us in the right direction. And that blows."


Airport log, 12/25/2002:Christmas. MIA, usually messed up, looked like Saigon airport when the Americans were scrambling to get out. In Concourse B, the ticket counter for Grupo Taca, a Central American-based airline, was jammed with hundreds of Nicaraguans, Hondurans, Costa Ricans, and Guatemalans, all with suitcases way over the weight limit. The line to Grupo Taca snaked all the way around the circular, Plexiglas gift shop. Ernest Urday, a Brickell Avenue doctor, trying to get by, was steamed at the lack of direction at the immigration checkpoints. In other U.S. cities, Urday observed, immigration personnel actually direct citizens and foreigners on where to go for processing. "The lines here are chaotic!" he fumed. "I am a U.S. citizen, been a resident of Florida for 21 years, and I stood in line for 30 minutes today in the 'U.S. citizens only' line. I was surrounded by hundreds of tourists! Nobody told them to go to the visitors' lines. That is unfair to us!"

Kerensa Flowers, a St. Louis traveler, was also disgusted with INS at MIA. "At approximately 5:45 a.m. an older gentleman, around 45-50, working the 'U.S. citizens only' line, snapped at me to hang up my cell phone," Flowers snarled. "Then he yells, 'Go to the back of the line now!!! And take your passport with you!!!' When I came back, he yelled at me again, 'Put your phone away!' I [wasn't talking], I just had the phone in my hand! He stamped my form and told me curtly, 'You're finished!' I'm finished? I have never experienced someone so rude before! I feel this was unnecessary, and I hope something will be said to him about his 'customer service' [manner]!"

Monica Bender, a French citizen passing through MIA after a vacation in Costa Rica, got all riled up over the treatment she received from "La Migra," too. "If our vacation in Costa Rica was pleasant, we can't say the same about our short stay in Miami!" Bender said sarcastically. "I'll let you be the judge: We waited a long time in INS, where we were forced to rewrite our green entry card threetimes before we got any help! As a result, we missed the Iberia flight for San Jose. We had to take another American Airlines flight at seven in the evening that had a layover in Panama for refueling. We didn't eat or have a [blanket] for the whole trip! We finally landed in San Jose after five hours, tired and hungry. Of course our luggage didn't make the flight, and we had to wait 24 hours before it ..."

Then coming back through Miami was as disastrous as going in, Bender continued. "We had to stand in line again at immigration for a very long time. Luckily an Iberia employee allowed us to cut in the 'U.S. citizens only' line. Afterward, we had to run from Concourse F, Iberia gates, to Concourse A, to catch our Air France flight back to Paris! I think the airport management does this on purpose! I turned my ankle, running to catch the Paris flight, and ate it badly on the carpet in Concourse B. I got right back up and was able to check in at Air France, though I was winded and tired from all the running. When we got to Paris, we didn't have our luggage again! It didn't make it to our connectingflight! The connection in Miami is like going to hell and back!"

Going through U.S. Customs was no picnic either: "You don't want to get me started on the customs officers, who gave you the feeling that they wanted you to miss your connection," she said exasperatedly. "One of them tore up the declaration form I filled out incorrectly with a big fat happy smile on his face! The bad memory of this godforsaken airport will burn in our memories for a long time. We will definitely make sure everybody around us is aware of it, so they don't have to go through this lovely experience!"

Customs treatment of U.S. citizens at MIA is no better, if you ask Walter Bustillos, a Brooklyn native on his way home from the Dominican Republic: "As I was waiting on line to have my bags scanned in the U.S. Customs section," Bustillos snapped in his thick accent, "this Spanish female customs agent with curly black hair and marks on her face asked me if I purchased my tickets and if the passport was mine. She ordered me in Spanish to come to a counter [where she could] search my bags. I asked her 'Do you know English?' because I only know a little Spanish. She said 'No.' She told me to place my bags on the table and as I was complying, she said that 'si tu equipaje me toca, te voy a dar un cocotazo!' [if my bag touched her, she'd hit me!] Her co-worker, a guy named Garzon, was standing next to her and threatened to throw me in jail if I kept asking questions! Fucking unbelievable!"


Airport log, 1/15/2003: A disheveled 54-year-old man in a cowboy hat and a blue sport coat with frayed and tattered cuffs stands outside the airport's Metro-Dade bus terminal. He's lugging a black suitcase and black and green Jansport backpack stuffed with papers and notebook binders. He introduces himself as Lewis Vandenberg and says he's been waiting for the Owl bus for nearly an hour and a half. According to the schedule posted in the terminal, the Owl runs every 40 minutes, going from the airport to Biscayne Boulevard, and NE 36th Street to Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue, then back to the airport. Vandenberg tells me he lives on South Beach and pretty much relies on public transportation when he travels out of MIA. "Which is a problem," he says, with one eyebrow cocked. "The public transportation in this town is deplorable. The Owl is always more like an hour and a half [or longer]. Sometimes three buses come at the same time, and then you won't get another bus for almost two hours! It's also a little threatening to stand out here between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. because of the homeless population and other unsavory characters milling about here." Manny Palmeiro, spokesman for the county's transit agency, asserted smugly that his department hadn't received any complaints about Owl service, but that he'd take care of them if he did.

Travelers should also be alert for unsavory machines lurking in the terminal. On two occasions, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue had to respond to calls for passengers who'd passed out after being hit with a mysterious white powder issuing from one of the prepaid phone card vending machines in the greeter's lobby on Concourse E. Apparently the individuals had fainted from shock, thinking they'd been hit with anthrax. The powder turned out to be cornstarch, which the vendors use to keep the phone cards from sticking together due to static electricity. "We've asked the vendors to stop using the starch," said Fire Lt. Jim Seefield. "We're getting run ragged on these and other bogus calls."

Larry Coston, an Atlanta businessman, tried to use two of the Triton ATM machines in the terminal, but got jacked for his money. The first machine, in Concourse G, and the second, in Concourse H, Coston remembered, took a long time processing his transactions to withdraw $160. "Both ATMs flashed an error sign and I didn't get any money," he said, clearly irate. Then Coston trudged to Concourse D and tried the Triton ATM machine there, but this time the contraption flashed him a message that read: "Insufficient Funds." "I called my bank soon after to check my account and the automated system told me that $160 plus the $5 ATM fee had been withdrawn. I was dumbfounded. There were no 1-800 numbers on the ATMs to call for service problems!"

After contacting airport management, Coston received the right 800 number to call and was able to fix his problem. "But I shouldn't have gone through the hassle in the first place," he complained.


Airport log 2/21/2003: I drove out of the terminal onto the connecting ramp to Le Jeune Road, kept right, and headed for the Bennigan's on NW 36th Street. I went inside, to the bar, where I was greeted by two middle-age Cuban-American dudes we'll call "Edwin" and "Joaquin." They work for a major airline. We ordered a pitcher of Bud and I shared the negative comments and harrowing experiences passengers coming through MIA had been pelting me with for the past few months. Edwin, a 35-year-old father of four with a bad knee, shrugged and let out a horrendous belch. Joaquin, who just turned 31 last month and has worked at the airport for ten years, laughed and offered this advice for people who don't like MIA: "Que se vayan para la pinga! Nosotros los Cubanos controlamos esto aqui. Si no le gustan, que se vayan![They can go screw themselves! Us Cubans control things around here. If they don't like it, they can leave!]"

It was a rough but honest summation from the ground troops whom you'll have to deal with at MIA, until Angela Gittens's vaunted reforms start to take effect. And who knows what the ETA on that might be?

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