MIA Handles More Dignitaries Than Any Other U.S. Airport

When Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos flew through Miami en route to North Carolina last week, his arrival, layover and departure were as carefully choreographed as a classical ballet.

Nearly a dozen officials -- from U.S. Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection and the Nicaraguan Consul General, to local police officers and airline and airport personnel -- greeted and escorted the president, ensuring that his three-hour stay at Miami International Airport went smoothly.

It was a routine performance at MIA, which handles 15 to 20 dignitaries every day, or up to 7,000 a year -- more than any other U.S. airport.

"New York has the largest consular corp, New York is the seat of the United Nations; nevertheless we are the hub of the Americas," said Irving Fourcand, MIA's director of protocol and international affairs. "Most of the dignitaries that arrive from Central and South America and the Caribbean travel through Miami."

September was an especially busy month for MIA, with delegations of diplomats and government officials crisscrossing the region to attend 10 separate events, including the United Nation's General Assembly in New York, the 14th Summit of the Non-aligned Nations in Havana and the Pan-American Health Organization meeting in Washington.

Among those transiting here were the presidents of Ecuador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras and Macedonia, Fourcand said.

"We became a small United Nations, ourselves," he said.

To handle the flow, the airport's protocol office was set up in 1989. Today, it has a staff of eight at a cost of $350,000 to $400,000 a year, including salaries and benefits, Fourcand said.

Dressed in suits, the officers are charged with keeping up to date on international affairs, to be ready to discuss any issue at any time. Among them, they speak Polish, Russian, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Creole, in addition to English.

But the protocol officers wait to be spoken to. First, they bow their head in greeting and pause for the dignitary to extend his or her hand.

Their main goal is a smooth airport transition.

"The protocol officer ensures that there is nothing that goes wrong with the arrival," Fourcand said, "that everything is well coordinated, that the entire transiting of dignitaries that we expedite will be flawless."

That includes making sure paperwork is filled out and cleared through Customs and Border Protection. And for departing dignitaries, it means assisting with check-in and screening at the security checkpoint. Presidents, however, are usually cleared by Secret Service and don't have to walk through the screening apparatus.

"It's very important, very useful," Nicaraguan Consul General in Miami Jose Velazquez, said of the airport's protocol operation. "It really facilitates the entrance and departure of not just the dignitaries but also the consular members."

Bolanos, who was traveling to visit his son at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., was able to meet his wife, son and daughter-in-law, who were already in Miami, at the American Airlines Admirals Club during his layover.

PRESIDENTIAL SNACK

Some diplomats like to stop to shop or eat. One president had such a love for Cinnabon that protocol officers would always make sure he could grab cinnamon rolls as they passed through the concourse, Fourcand said.

Most dignitaries, like Bolanos, travel on commercial carriers, and many fly on American Airlines, the dominant carrier at MIA.

American Airlines' premium services personnel handle five to eight heads of state, first ladies, ministers of foreign affairs and vice presidents a day, said American spokeswoman Martha Pantin.

"Miami is the busiest station in the American Airlines system for this type of assist," she said, "because of being the gateway to the Caribbean and Latin America."

FLIGHT CONNECTIONS

Part of MIA's high dignitary volume is due to the fact that about 40 percent of the airport's passengers connect to other flights. Diplomatic traffic is also driven by the large consular corps here, Fourcand said.

At the beginning of this month, a group of Latin American and Caribbean officials flew to MIA, where they were picked up by a Canadian Air Force plane and flown to a Canadian-hosted event in Nicaragua.

The correct way to board a group of dignitaries, without snubbing anyone? By alphabetic order of country, Fourcand said.

The past several weeks have also been particularly busy for the U.S. Secret Service. Agents protect foreign heads of state -- "from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave," said John Large, deputy special agent in charge for the U.S. Secret Service, Miami field office, which is the third largest in the nation, after New York and Washington.

While New York's JFK receives one to two dozen dignitaries a week -- mostly tied to the United Nations, the airport has only one staff member to assist with greeting and escorting, said Pasquale DiFulco, spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood rarely handles high-level dignitaries, just occasional groups of officials who visit on economic or trade missions, said airport spokesman Steve Belleme.

But MIA's traffic continues. Today, the Cuban Transition to Democracy Summit begins in Miami, and the ministers of foreign affairs from Lithuania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and Poland will arrive.

In general, besides working with the U.S. Secret Service and Customs and Border Protection, arrivals and departures are coordinated with the U.S. State Department, police and Transportation Security Administration for departures.

Everything has not always gone smoothly.

The most notorious fiasco came in April 2004, when handlers for the prince of Spain, Felipe de Borbon, and his bride-to-be, Letizia, fumed as TSA employees opened the couple's suitcases in a secured area. They were flying in from the Bahamas to catch a connecting flight to Madrid. But Spanish officials hadn't contacted the State Department early enough for special arrangements to be made.

Since then, no such diplomatic dust-ups have occurred, Fourcand said.

The way to avoid it: "To make sure that there is enough time for notification."

The Miami Herald -- 10/13/06


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