Never in the history of mankind has so little cellophane engendered so much hatred. The battleground: Miami International Airport. There, along the horseshoe of concourses, three baggage-wrapping concessionaires have been locked in bitter competition for the past year. The conflict has featured spying, public quarrels, and one alleged case of assault, and has driven airport officials to distraction, compelling one beleaguered bureaucrat, in a memo addressing the zillionth complaint, to beseech: "When, oh when, will this end?"
The first baggage-wrapping company made its appearance on the terminal floor just over two years ago. Airport property manager Adrian Songer says the airport signed a nonexclusive contract with Secure Seal of Florida, Inc. that enabled the company to set up its machines in specific locations around the terminal. The machines, which look like enormous Kleenex dispensers tipped on their ends, contain rolls of heavy-duty cling wrap that can provide protection against scuffing, theft, and the elements. The suitcase (or box or duffel bag or, as was the case for one customer this past week, giant stuffed white tiger) is placed on a rotating plate that spins around as the machine dispenses a sheet of plastic whose layers essentially mummify the item.
As Secure Seal began to flourish, two other companies moved in, signing similar operating agreements of their own: Riveri Strapping, Inc. in April 1995, and Quick Packing, Inc. this past August. Each company was allowed to set up shop near the counters of airlines from whom they had requested and received permission; they would provide exclusive wrapping services for those airlines' passengers.
And so the war began.
On September 2, according to Secure Seal president Radames Villalon, one of his part-time employees, Hector Hernandez, was on duty at his second job as a skycap when he was approached by Luis Fernandez, the president of Quick Packing. Fernandez told Hernandez not to take any passengers' suitcases to Secure Seal's machines, Villalon wrote in a memo to Songer. "Hector says that he told him that he would take the passengers' suitcases wherever the passengers instructed him to without company preference," Villalon continued. Whereupon a man accompanying Fernandez "struck Hernandez in the face. Once he had fallen, the man kicked him in the face." (Hernandez later registered a complaint with Metro-Dade police, but no charges have been filed.)
Villalon was certain that Fernandez's companion was a Quick Packing employee, though Hernandez wasn't able to positively identify the man for police. "It is very obvious that the reason Mr. Hector Hernandez was attacked was because he is an employee of Secure Seal of Florida," the Secure Seal president's memo continued. "Because of this incident my employees are very fearful for their safety. We have had to instruct them not to leave the airport by themselves, but to go out in [a] group. This situation is shameful."
Fernandez could not be reached for comment for this story. But other confrontations are documented in Adrian Songer's burgeoning luggage-wrapping files:
*In October an airport official was called to Concourse E to referee a dispute between managers from Secure Seal and Quick Packing, who were accusing each other of locating their machines improperly. "You're full of shit!" Quick Packing manager Pedro Pelaez yelled at his Secure Seal counterpart in both English and Spanish, according to a memo filed by the airport official. "As the argument was getting heated, I told them to please keep calm," reported terminal senior agent Guy Langsdale. The argument was settled without any punches being thrown.
*On December 26, Riveri Strapping grumbled about the free baggage-wrapping promotion Secure Seal had offered the previous day. "I stood across the way to inspect the situation, not only was the operator from Secure Seal giving the service for FREE but he was also SOLICITING everyone who passed in front of his machine and those standing in the queue of the check-in lines at ALL counters," whined Karin Martinez, president of Riveri Strapping. Martinez clandestinely snapped some photos, then summoned an airport official who ordered Secure Seal to stop offering the Christmas giveaway to anyone besides passengers on airlines with which it had a service agreement. Secure Seal employees denied engaging in any solicitation.
*In February a Brazilian traveler named Robert Oliveri filed a complaint with the Metro-Dade Aviation Department accusing Quick Packing of overcharging him. But when Quick Packing staffers were provided a copy of the complaint and investigated it themselves, they were unable to find any record of Robert Oliveri. They also discovered that neither phone number Oliveri had provided on his complaint was a working number, and that the Quick Packing employee named in the complaint hadn't been on duty on the day in question. "Therefore," Quick Packing president Luis Fernandez concluded in a memo to Songer, "based on our thorough research and review of this matter, we can only conclude that this complaint was falsely filed ... by one of our competitors."
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Adrian Songer has heard just about enough. "Every now and then you get a little tired," he confesses. "In a competitive environment, maybe sometimes words are exchanged. The airport is an environment in which there's a tremendous amount of activity. There's a certain energy down on the floor and sometimes people get a little carried away."
Songer should get relief sometime soon. Now that three businesses are in competition, airport officials must prepare an invitation to bid for a sole contractor. They expect the document to be reviewed by the Metro Commission this fall. It certainly seems to be a contract worth fighting for: Luggage-wrapping revenues during this past fiscal year totaled $1.6 million; the three companies jointly pulled in $1.4 million during the first seven months of the current fiscal year.
And Secure Seal's Villalon, for one, hasn't wasted any time in mapping out his campaign. He has rolled out the heavy artillery, enlisting the help of prominent lobbyists George Knox and Phil Hamersmith.