Special Airport Service for Some Very Special People

If Dade County Commissioners hope for VIP treatment in the air, they virtually demand it on the ground at Miami International Airport. In fact, a fully staffed office is dedicated to ensuring that commissioners and senior county bureaucrats feel good about themselves. It's called "protocol."

The aviation department's protocol office was established in 1989 to assist world leaders, heads of state, ambassadors, national politicians, and celebrities when they arrive or depart from MIA. Smiling men and women in crisp uniforms are dispatched from protocol's fourth-floor offices in the airport's main terminal to greet them. Often these weary world travelers stop in Miami only long enough to change planes; in those instances, a protocol officer escorts them through the airport, makes sure they get to the right gate, and if they have a layover, takes them to one of airport's private clubs for a bit of relaxation.

If a dignitary's destination is Miami and he is arriving from a foreign country, the protocol officer's job is to steer him to the front of the habitually long lines at immigration and customs, and get him on his way with as little trouble as possible. The goal is to leave these genuine VIPs with a positive image of South Florida, even if their stay lasts only a few minutes.

The protocol office records its activities in daily logbooks, which make for fascinating reading given that the flow of presidents and prime ministers, rock stars and actors who pass through the airport is truly staggering. But the logs also suggest that some politicians and county officials view protocol staffers as their personal servants when they use the airport. The records show that county commissioners, their staffs, members of the county manager's office, and other local bureaucrats asked protocol officers to escort them through the airport, speed them through customs, or provide some other special service at least 100 times in the past 15 months.

On February 13, 1994, for example, Commissioner Natacha Millan wanted the protocol office to meet her at the curb when she arrived at the airport. She also requested that a skycap help with her bags. The logs indicate that Millan was then guided to one of the airport's private lounges "while special services of American Airlines handled the luggage and ticketing." According to veteran airport officials, Millan now regularly expects similar personalized service when she uses the airport.

So attentive to detail is the dignitary patrol that when a protocol officer was called out in April 1994 to meet Commissioner Ferre's wife, the log sheet recorded that "the suitcase of Mrs. Ferre was damaged during the flight, otherwise all went well." When Commissioner James Burke needed someone to fetch him his car keys, a member of the protocol office was waiting for him as he stepped off his plane, keys in hand. Last fall a protocol officer walked with him from the terminal to his parked car.

Even former county manager Joaquin Avino, who regularly called on protocol before he left the county at the end of last year, has found it difficult to wean himself from such solicitous attention. According to records for January 11, 1995, Avi*o and his wife, heading off for a much-deserved vacation, were squired through the airport at the request of Amaury Zuriarrain, MIA's deputy director. The protocol officer handling the assignment noted in her logbook that she "got the upgrade" for the Avi*os from a representative of American Airlines and that "all went well."

Zuriarrain, who oversees the protocol office, asserts that commissioners and other county officials are well within their rights to request professional assistance. "We extend that service to business leaders and government officials at the local, state, national, and foreign level," he says. "The protocol officers are hired and trained to be kind and courteous. That's their job. Helping commissioners and others doesn't cost the county anything additionally. These people would be here working a shift anyway."

But sometimes aiding county officials can lead to problems for the very people protocol was actually designed to help. For example, on April 19, 1994, a dignitary from El Salvador was supposed to have been met upon arrival. Unfortunately, he had to suffer the indignity of threading his way through the airport maze unassisted. The protocol office had its hands full attending to the needs of Commissioner Larry Hawkins.

Not all commissioners appear to use the protocol office. Betty Ferguson, Dennis Moss, Gwen Margolis, Katy Sorenson, and Alex Penelas's names do not appear on any of the logbook's requests for service. Other county officials seem addicted to it A most notably Assistant County Manager Tony Ojeda. Aviation department employees claim Ojeda is among the most demanding and arrogant, and that he routinely expects red-carpet treatment when he's in the airport. According to protocol records, ten times in the past twelve months Ojeda has asked to be greeted when he arrives at the airport. Most logbook notations refer to him alone, such as this from August 20, 1994: "Tony Ojeda. Assistant County Manager. Club America notified." But the bureaucrat has also sought out protocol when his aunt traveled on November 16, and on November 29 when he and his mother flew on British Airways.

A recent Ojeda encounter took place February 3, 1995, when he was scheduled to arrive on a flight from South America at about 6:00 a.m. As usual he wanted to be whisked through customs. But as the logbook indicates, there were a few problems. "Everything did not go well on this assignment," the unnamed protocol officer wrote. "The screen showed arrival at one gate and the plane arrived at another. I caught up to Mr. Ojeda in customs and apologized profusely! Kristen from American was with him and he said for me not to worry for he was okay."

Ojeda insists he has never been rude or arrogant with anyone at the airport, and says he sees nothing wrong with utilizing the protocol office whenever he travels. "It's really there for everyone," he explains. "Most people just don't call for their help." The assistant county manager returned from Chile this past week, for example, and says he naturally asked protocol to meet him: "Instead of having to wait two hours at customs, I was able to get right through." And as for protocol assisting his family members, Ojeda says, "My mother is 78 years old and I think it is entirely appropriate."

Just a few hours after Ojeda's February flight arrived from South America, Commissioner James Burke took advantage of protocol's services. The commissioner's flight was scheduled to depart at 10:45 a.m., but he got to the airport parking garage with only five minutes to spare. Like all commissioners, Burke is entitled to park free of charge in the VIP section of the airport garage. Protocol officers knew this, of course. And they knew Burke was flying that day. They also realized he was late. So they had a car and chauffeur waiting to drive Burke from the parking garage to the terminal. Not surprisingly, by the time the commissioner made it to the gate, his flight had already left. "He was very gracious about it," wrote Monique Denes, the aviation department's chief of protocol, "and thankful for the services provided.


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