|The Trouble with Miami International Airport|
|Written by Jack King - BT Contributor|
It’s not outgoing director José Abreu, it’s politicians who think they’re dictators
Last month José Abreu, the director of Miami International Airport (and, actually, all the airports in the county), retired from the post and went to work in the private sector. I can hardly blame him. He had inherited what could be the worst airport in the nation and somehow turned in to a semi-palatable, semi-efficient operation that could at least get you to your destination.
As good as he was, Abreu couldn’t solve all the airport’s problems, the largest of which is the Miami-Dade County Commission. Our 13 commissioners truly believe they’ve been elected dictators of the county and that they’re in charge of everything, no matter how little knowledge they have about anything.
At MIA they want to select the vendors and contractors, squeeze campaign contributions from the vendors, get jobs for their relatives and friends, and then hire someone else to straighten out the mess they’ve created.
A little history here.
It wasn’t always like this. In the 1980s, Miami was just emerging as a real city. The commissioners, who were paid very little and had to have a real job outside county hall, generally hired professional directors for big departments like the airport and the seaport. These directors, and directors for smaller departments, ran their operations with an iron hand, and as long as they didn’t make too many waves, they kept their jobs.
How much power did they have? Here’s a case in point: Dick Judy was the aviation director from 1971 to 1989, during a time when the county (with federal money) was building the Metrorail system. There wasn’t much to Miami in those days, and the only obvious stops for the Metrorail were downtown and the airport. Both seemed plausible, but Judy objected to an airport link. And he won.
People in Miami were very confused as to why the train didn’t go to the airport, but for Judy it was a no-brainer. In those days, there was very little retail at the airport. It was just a place to get on an airplane and go somewhere.
The landing fees the airlines paid were minimal, so Judy had to find another way to increase revenues. His solution: Build parking garage after parking garage. Those garages made money -- lots of it -- from local travelers who drove their cars to MIA.
In the end, Judy was forced to resign for being too independent and clashing with commissioners. After that, they began to select airport directors who were amenable to their desires, including the selection of vendors that commissioners liked (read: campaign contributors, and jobs for their friends). It wasn’t long before the commissioners had turned the tables on their airport directors. In essence the tail was now wagging the dog. And wag the dog they did.
They ran this scheme for a number of years at the airport and the seaport, both of which began devolving into really big messes. The county was spending tons money, but MIA just got worse, a fact noticed by the industry and millions of international passengers -- not a good thing for a city aspiring to world-class status. So county commissioners hired Angela Gittens, fresh from cleaning up Atlanta’s corrupt airport and a rising star in airport management.
She straightened out the mess, stopped the bribes (oops… I mean campaign contributions), snatched power from the politicans, and ran MIA like a pro. Unfortunately, Miami wasn’t quite ready to have something actually run right. The insiders rebelled. After three tumultuous years as director, Gittens was gone and things were back to normal.
Normal meant lots of money pouring through the system but nothing being accomplished. Again county commissioners knew they were in trouble and they hired José Abreu. The rest, as they say, is history.
Abreu left the airport in far better shape than he found it, but it is nowhere near good or completed. The north terminal (American Airlines) is by all guesses about 90 percent complete.
Most of the south terminal was completed 15 years ago and is truly obsolete. It’s home to most of the foreign carriers, but customs is half an airport away, with no people mover. You have to walk.
Don’t ask about the middle terminal. It is 50 years old and is a complete tear-down.
In late 2010, I interviewed José Abreu at his office (see “You May Now Move About the Airport,” January 2011). As I was leaving, he said, “You know, the debt service for the airport is about $1 million a day.” I was stunned.
I added up, as best I could, what the cost could be for the complete airport renovation, Marlins stadium, port facilities, port tunnel, and numerous other projects. It comes to roughly $20 billion in debt, which translates to some $3 million in debt service every day for 40 years. And this is for stuff that has a 20- to 30-year shelf life.
Volume 12, Issue 8. October 2014
The Smithsonian honors a local documentary photographer
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