Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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Mamma MIA! What a Wacky Airport!
June 18, 2015 -- On business flights to South Florida, I usually aim for easy-to-navigate Fort Lauderdale airport. But I flew into Miami International Airport several weeks ago. Mamma MIA! That is one wacky airport, particularly if you're on a tight travel schedule and unfamiliar with the sprawling complex.

MIA is a beehive of airlines and travelers, the 12th-busiest North American airport by passenger traffic. It handles more than 100 scheduled and chartered airlines, more than any U.S. airport. (Fort Lauderdale, by contrast, hosts 30 airlines and doesn't crack the Top 20 in passenger traffic.) MIA is the nation's primary gateway to Latin and South America and the second-busiest airport for international departures and landings after Kennedy in New York.

Some statistics, though, are nothing to boast about. In April, the Miami-Dade Police Department set up a sting that caught six ramp workers and baggage handlers looting checked luggage. It wasn't an isolated case. Since 2012, 31 airport employees have been arrested and fired for luggage theft. Also in 2012, ABC News reported that 29 TSA agents were fired for theft at MIA, more than any other airport. Electronic gear including iPads, phones and laptops were the most often stolen.

Miami's split personality is reflected in its passenger amenities, too. I flew in on United Airlines, landing at Concourse G and it looked like a throwback in time. It had none of the amenities major airports offer road warriors today. No sit-down workspaces or stand-up desks or ledges to perch a laptop. No room to spread out. Between Gates 5 and 2 in Terminal G, I spotted just one charging station. Although the Miami Airport Web site boasts about nine private lounges, not one is situated on Concourse G.

The tiny Budweiser Chalet in G Concourse sells pizzas, beer and booze--but you'll dig deep to elbow bend. A weak margarita with a single shot of Patron silver tequila and a bad sweet-and-sour premix costs $13.50. A pint of Stella Artois was $8.50.

On the other hand, American Airlines and its American Eagle commuter carrier account for more than 73 percent of MIA traffic. American passengers mostly arrive and depart from Concourse D in the North Terminal. It, too, is bursting at the seams, but the North Terminal looks and feels like a different airport.

The space is contemporary and thoughtfully designed for business travelers with places to work and power up. There are two Admirals Clubs. An American Express Centurion Lounge opened this month. There are dozens of places to eat, including branches of two famous Miami area Cuban eateries (La Carreta and Cafe Versailles); a restaurant fronted by celebrity chef Lorena Garcia and the well-regarded Beaudevin wine bar.

Why does MIA brass favor American over United? Because American ponied up cash for the modernization. An airport spokesman says Miami International is a "residual" facility. That basically means all carriers pay--through landing and rental fees and various assessments--for improvements and upgrades. Miami-Dade County, which owns and operates the airport, pays little or nothing for upgrades and passenger amenities. (A plan to upgrade G Concourse was "deferred" after 9/11 and has never been rescheduled, says the spokesman.)

The airport's basic disregard for passengers can be seen in some other areas, however. Unlike most other airports, Miami still charges for WiFi access and prices start at $4.95 for 30 minutes. (The airport spokesman says WiFi will soon be free and the airport's policy was recently dinged by Richard Quest, CNN's avuncular business-travel expert.) And the aging, 259-room Miami International Airport Hotel at Concourse E is a frequent target of TripAdvisor reviewers. "Rooms are awful," says one representative comment. "Old, bad beds."

Navigating MIA is confusing and takes stamina. The airport has a consolidated car-rental facility, accessible by two monorails that are a long hike from the main terminals. Give yourself time and get directions. Signage is confusing for first-timers. I didn't get off at the car-rental center and took a couple unexpected roundtrips. MIA also has a raft of obscure, off-airport rental companies, so if you didn't book a major brand, you have to catch another shuttle ride to pick up and drop off your wheels.

And the airport is dominated by leisure flyers, many from Latin America. Latino travelers, especially Brazilians and Colombians, fly with more luggage than most tourists. ("It's a cultural thing because Brazilians and Colombians shop a lot in the United States," says C.K. Jariwala, co-owner and general manager of Best Western Plus in Hallandale Beach, about 20 miles from the airport.) The glut of tourists and overflow of luggage adds to the congestion in terminals and slows the flow of people and baggage through the airport.

Miami businesspeople have strong thoughts about their airport--and few are generous.

"The airport and the road to the airport have been under construction forever," says Michael Rose, chief executive of Rose Capital Advisors in Miami Beach. "Don't take your own car and park it. I now use Uber for $18 and avoid cabs that are $40 plus tip."

Rose never gets to the airport early and uses his downtime to work. "I time it and am always the guy running at the airport chasing the plane."

Xavier Iglesias, senior project manager for DPZ Partners, a Miami architectural firm, agrees.

"For the better part of 40 years, the airport keeps on expanding. Some concourses look and feel like the 21st century. Some look like the 1970s," he says. "It's always crowded. I signed up for TSA Pre-Check, but the line was longer the regular checkpoint lines."

Research assistance by Veronika Torgashova

This column is Copyright 2015 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.