Calling Card Machines are Biggest Source of Complaints at MIA

The Miami-Dade County Commission favors keeping the machines, whose politically connected providers pay roughly $750,000 a year in airport revenue.


There are many hassles at Miami International Airport: Long lines, scant short-term parking and detours caused by construction.

But the No. 1 complaint for passengers is this: The phone card machine took my money.

MIA executives would like to scrap the pre-paid phone card vending machines, which are the source of 80 percent of written complaints. But the Miami-Dade County Commission favors keeping the machines, whose politically connected providers pay roughly $750,000 a year in airport revenue.

''I wanted them out -- I thought there was too much clutter and problems,'' said aviation director José Abreu, who wants the cards sold in stores, where clerks would handle the transaction. That's how it's done at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

The proliferation of cellphones and generous calling plans have put a dent in the phone-card business, but MIA's millions of international travelers still depend on cards to call home.

Three firms have been providing the machines since 1995, operating under ''test permits'' the commission renewed.

Under one proposal to be presented to the Regional Transportation Committee Thursday, Latin American Enterprises would have half of the machines, while a joint-venture between Communitel and WTN would have the rest.

The airport would receive $501,000 from the two firms in the first two years of the deal. The third year calls for MIA to get $1.2 million.

Latin American Enterprises' lobbyist Miguel DeGrandy said the new plan will improve customer service.

REDUCING CLUTTER

Cutting the number of machines from 75 to 40 will reduce clutter in the terminals and concourses, he said.

In addition, machines won't be next to each other, so customers who have a problem will be able to identify which machine took their money. Being unable to remember which of three machines took their money is a common complaint.

DeGrandy said his firm is also spending money on new machines.

''This should work out better for everyone,'' DeGrandy said. ``We have a new generation of machines that should be more reliable.''

MIA's director of commercial operations, Patricia Ryan, said the contract will include strict penalties if a vendor moves a machine to a new location or if the machine takes money without dispensing cards. Machines also must have paper records to show how much money the machines are collecting.

Though the contract is designed to improve customer service, the companies wouldn't be required to lower their prices to consumers. The only stipulation is that they can't raise their prices during the three years of the deal.

A POOR DEAL

And the airport phone cards remain a poor deal. A $5 phone card by Communitel bought this week at an MIA vending machine was good for 10 minutes of long-distance in the United States.

By comparison, a $5 phone card purchased at a gas station on Biscayne Boulevard was good for 2 hours and 50 minutes.

Latin American Enterprises won the bid in June, but Communitel/WTN filed a bid protest. Commissioners directed staff in September to find a way so that all firms could share.

MIA staff will also present four other alternatives, such as selling the cards only in stores, though Abreu believes keeping all three firms is the most palatable solution for commissioners.

With operating costs soaring, the airport is hard-pressed to find new revenue. It's not clear whether the airport could recoup that money by selling the cards exclusively in stores. It also doesn't know how much staff time it cost to give customers refunds. Another factor: The malfunctioning machines could cost the airport good will and possibly customers.

''For a $5 complaint, it might have cost us $50 to $100 in staff time to get someone a refund,'' Ryan said.

Former Alex Penelas chief of staff Jorge Lopez has lobbied for Communitel, though Lopez said Tuesday he's no longer involved with the firm.

WTN president Edward Meegan declined to comment on the possible deal. Longtime MIA lobbyist Chris Korge has lobbied for WTN in the past.

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