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

The protocol office of Miami International Airport handles more dignitaries than any other airport in the nation.

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.


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."


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