Phone Card Machines at MIA to Remain

The maligned prepaid phone card machines at Miami International Airport are almost certain to stay.

The county's Regional Transportation Committee approved Thursday a plan to keep the three current vendors at MIA for three more years. Commissioner Katy Sorensen urged her colleagues to reject the vending machines and sell the cards in stores, but her move was dismissed.

About 80 percent of written complaints the airport receives are about the phone-card vending machines -- usually that the machines took a passenger's money. The cards also give consumers far fewer minutes than cards bought outside MIA.

''They clutter the place,'' Sorensen said. ``And when I bought one, I felt ripped off.''

Aviation director Jose Abreu wants the machines out of the airport, but commissioners wanted to keep the revenue, which currently runs about $750,000 a year. So Abreu's staff crafted a compromise between the three vendors.

Under the plan, Latin American Enterprises will have 20 machines, while a joint venture between Communitel and WTN will have another 20 machines.

The firms have done business at the airport for 10 years under ''test permits'' that were never intended to last more a few months. All three firms have been represented at times by long-time MIA lobbyists, and they have fought vigorously to stay.

Today there are about 75 machines at MIA, with as many as three in one location. Abreu said the contract -- which must be approved by the full County Commission in January -- will have safeguards to improve customer service.

The companies will be required to have newer machines to reduce the number of complaints. The machines also must have a paper record of each transaction so MIA staff can audit sales.

But there is no requirement that the firms lower their prices. A card bought at MIA this week gave a consumer 10 minutes for $5. A $5 card bought outside was worth nearly three hours.

''We don't want people to be upset,'' said Commissioner Dennis Moss, who supports keeping the machines. ``But I think we can move forward. .''

Miami Herald

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