MIA's South Terminal set to open amid high expectations

$1.1 billion facility will see phased-in opening process


The South Terminal was planned to house airline members of the Star Alliance -- United Airlines and its partners -- as well as members of SkyTeam, including Delta. But since then, United has eliminated the Latin American flights from MIA that had made it the airport's second-largest carrier after American. It now operates just a handful of daily flights to Chicago, Denver and Washington.

And instead of the 26 airlines the terminal expected to house when it was first designed, just 19 now plan to move in.

Meanwhile, costs have soared.

The terminal's budget was $799 million when contractors Parsons-Odebrecht Joint Venture broke ground in 2002, with a completion date set at 2005. But eight construction change orders and assorted other problems complicated matters, adding $300 million to the price, and leading to two years of delays.

COSTLY ADD-ONS

Among the biggest add-ons: about $100 million in post 9/11 security enhancements, including a conveyor system with more than

3 miles of conveyors and an up-to-date in-line baggage screening system -- designed to handle 4,000 bags an hour -- using explosive detection machinery hidden behind the scenes. Also, $25 million to

$30 million related to installing a fiber-optic communication system throughout the building, known as the Premise Distribution System; and $20 million to $25 million related to changes requested by airlines, Fajardo said.

Adding to the high costs were soaring material prices, including cement and structural steel.

Most troublesome of all has been the chronic shortage of construction workers to complete the job, said Fajardo, who has been the point person on the South Terminal for the past eight months.

About 80 subcontractors have worked on the project, yet there have not been more than 700 workers on site -- far less than required to complete the job on time, Fajardo said.

'Our contention is: 'Your schedule does not reflect the number of people you have on the site,' " Fajardo said.

The most recent delay came in January of this year, when the opening was pushed back to August from March -- after having been delayed from the fall of 2006.

"The delays on South Terminal are a result of failure to pursue the work and a real effort to get it completed," Deputy Aviation Director John Cosper said in January. "I don't see a desire to complete the job over there."

POJV, which is also the contractor on the North Terminal, won't respond definitively to the causes of the delays, acknowledging the sensitivity of the subject.

Gilberto Neves, chief executive of Odebrecht USA, said that at times, 1,000 workers were on the job. But having more workers would not have guaranteed that the terminal would have been opened earlier, he said, because of so many changes requested by the airport.

"There was a need for more manpower, yes, but I don't know if loading the job with more men [would have led to its opening earlier]," Neves said.

An analysis of the project's scheduling -- which required 30,000 construction activities -- is now underway to determine if the changes had more of an impact on delays than the labor shortage, he said.

That could translate to a request to the county for even more money.

While construction delays have surely added to the project's budget, as costs keep escalating, Fajardo said he could not put a price on them. To date, POJV has been paid for 96 percent of the airport's completion, but more claims for additional funds are expected.

"Everyone thinks we have endless pockets," Fajardo said. "It doesn't work out that way."

Besides MIA, several major airports nationwide have also added new terminals during the past few years, including San Francisco, Dallas-Fort Worth and Detroit. And cost overruns are not uncommon, said Dick Marchi, senior advisor of Airports Council International North America.

FALLING BEHIND

"Construction costs have been escalating much faster than the consumer price index for the past 10 years or so, so you can easily get behind the eight ball in cost estimating," he said. "It happens in so many projects."

Still, airlines say they are happy to be moving to the new terminal, which will offer more space and a large, nearby federal inspection station that can process 2,000 international passengers per hour.

"It's going to be a much more pleasant experience for passengers, after waiting, and also arriving at the airport," said Carlos Roman, marketing director for Lan Airlines, which will operate 38 flights a week from the new Concourse J.

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