Blame Traded Over Long Lines at MIA

Chronic delays that periodically dog international travelers at Miami International Airport are the product of too few passport control officers -- or outmoded facilities, depending on whom you ask.

The federal government insists that the problem stems from inadequate airport facilities and uneven distribution of gate assignments for arriving flights. Airport and airline managers blame delays on a shortage of passport control officers.

The dispute has exposed a long-festering problem at MIA, the nation's busiest airport in terms of foreign travelers. And for several weeks this past summer, it drew the Miami-Dade County aviation department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection into a round of mutual finger-pointing.

By September, however, a reconciliation of sorts began to emerge -- and by last week, county and federal officials were talking seriously about solutions. One involves construction of a new passport control facility at an airport terminal now reserved for international travelers who transit through MIA.

''We need a team approach to move forward,'' said José Abreu, the aviation department director. ``I really want to work together. I just want to solve the problem.''

The tug of war began in July when the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a congressional investigative arm, released a report on wait times at the 20 international airports with the most international travelers in the country.

GAO investigators found that on average, MIA passport control officers took about 50 minutes to process a planeload of international travelers -- 10 to 20 minutes longer than the average wait at other surveyed airports.

Since the GAO report came out, passport control wait times at MIA have improved -- partly because the annual summer travel crush is over.

In late October, for example, the average wait time at MIA was about 30 minutes. Airport passport control wait times are available on the Customs and Border Protection Internet website:

Airline managers have echoed the aviation department's complaints, blaming a shortage of passport control officers as the reason for slow-moving lines.

American Airlines and Lan of Chile have complained about missed connections at MIA, with LAN noting that its customers have said they would seek alternate points of entry to the United States in the future.

''Understaffing is the problem,'' said Xiomara Winklaar, station manager for Martinair and president of the Airline Management Council, a group that represents MIA-based airlines.

Winklaar, the council and two airlines -- American Airlines and Lan -- mirrored assertions by Abreu that delays stem from a lack of sufficient Customs and Border Protection personnel.

Thomas Winkowski, local field operations director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a Homeland Security agency, blamed Abreu's office for delays -- calling MIA passport control facilities ''outdated'' and insufficient to accommodate the crush of travelers.

After weeks of public bickering, the two agencies began to take a more conciliatory approach. The easing of tensions followed an Aug. 26 meeting between Abreu and Winkowski, brokered by Miami-Dade County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez.

Winkowski said a major factor behind delays has been a refusal by MIA managers to more evenly distribute flight arrivals between the Concourse E and Concourse B passport control areas.

Most international flights are directed to E passport control, while B is underutilized, Winkowski said. He also traced part of the problem to Sept. 29, 2004, when nine of 13 gates in Concourse B were closed.

''We had one-day notice of that,'' Winkowski said. The county insists it gave plenty of advance warning, with officials announcing closings at periodic meetings of the Airline Management Council attended by Customs and Border Protection representatives.

Jeffrey O. Baldwin Sr., the local U.S. Customs and Border Protection port director, said closings were indeed mentioned at those meetings, but only as a possibility and without citing specific closing dates.

Bruce Drum, assistant county aviation director for operations, said briefings at Airline Management Council meetings contained specific warnings about gate closings.

The gates were closed to accommodate construction of a new terminal, part of a $4.8 billion MIA expansion.

The main point of contention is whether Customs and Border Protection adequately staffs passport control booths at E -- scene of the periodic passenger backups.

Those backups occur largely in the afternoon and evening, the preferred arrival times for jumbo jetliners from Europe. Often passengers have had to wait hours to clear passport control after their flights have landed.

Winkowski said Concourse E passport control booths are fully staffed at afternoon and evening peak arrival times. Concourse E is the busiest MIA international terminal, with 36 passport control booths.

Booths are not fully staffed during non-peak hours, Winkowski said. He said Customs and Border Protection officers can efficiently clear the current number of travelers if E had at least 50 booths fully staffed at peak times.

With 36 booths, Winkowski said, inspectors can efficiently process 1,440 passengers per hour -- but slow down considerably when hundreds more show up.

A chart Winkowski provided showed that between 1 and 6 p.m. considerably more than 1,440 passengers show up every hour at E's passport control lines, though county officials disputed those figures and produced their own tally for August, showing fewer travelers.

Winkowski said delays can be eased if the aviation department divided flights more evenly between concourses E and B, which combined have 64 booths.

Aviation officials said that's impossible because airline schedules, marketing strategies, partnerships with other airlines and arrangements with connecting flights do not permit major changes to current gate assignments.

Abreu's office, meanwhile, has suggested processing some international passengers at 16 passport control booths at another site known as Satellite Terminal.

Abreu said Customs and Border Protection rejected the plan because it wants Satellite reserved exclusively to screen travelers arriving from abroad and catching connecting flights to another country. Baldwin said adding regular passengers to the Satellite screening area would create a security ''nightmare'' in case a passenger is detained for questioning.

For now, he said, the nearest interrogation site is at E -- a relatively long distance from Satellite.

A possible solution to the impasse emerged in early September when Abreu said he was willing to spend $100,000 to build an interrogation site at Satellite. He said Winkowski was interested and asked for the proposal in writing.

Abreu sent a letter to Winkowski Sept. 7 with a proposal.

Winkowski said last week he was reviewing Abreu's letter and preparing a response.

Miami Herald

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