Customs' Staffing Proposal for Miami May deter Airlines

Miami International Airport is concerned a U.S. Customs and Border Protection proposal to staff the airport's new South Terminal for just eight hours a day will cause some airlines to refuse to move into the $800 million building.

Customs has proposed staffing South Terminal from 1 to 9 p.m. Airlines are worried about being forced into "split operations" at the South Terminal, which is about 10 months away from opening. Air Jamaica, for instance, has three daily flights to MIA -- an early morning flight from Kingston arrives at 9 a.m. That plane could have to park at the Central Terminal, unload its passengers, and then taxi to the South Terminal for a departure.

"The airlines have told us they won't do split operations," said aviation director Jose Abreu.

Of the 16 airlines slated to move to South Terminal that have international flights, 10 have arrivals that fall outside of the proposed staffing hours, the Miami Airport Affairs Committee told Abreu in a March letter.

A 1 to 9 p.m. staffing is "simply unacceptable," wrote Greg Casto of MAAC, which represents MIA's airlines. "Split operations unnecessarily increase airline operating costs and confusion on the part of passengers and their meeters/greeters."

The South Terminal is supposed to be the new face of MIA: A dramatic building with glass walls and a sloping roof that resembles the curve of an airplane's wing.

Twenty-two airlines are slated to operate there, primarily members of Delta's SkyTeam Alliance -- including Air France and Alitalia -- and United's Star Alliance, including Lufthansa, Air Canada and Varig.

South Terminal will have 40 passport control booths.

SLOW GOING

Executives at MIA -- which has been called one of the nation's slowest airports to clear immigration -- hope they can wrangle longer hours from Customs.

Thomas S. Winkowski, director of field operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said he's willing to be flexible and add more staff. But when he studied the proposed arrivals last year, it didn't make sense to staff the building outside 1 to 9 p.m.

"There are a lot of moving pieces -- we're still 10 months out," Winkowski said.'

Winkowski said he's lobbied MIA to move more flights to South Terminal so he can justify more staff there.

NEW AGENCIES

Customs and Border Protection is one of three agencies created after the functions of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service were folded into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

Their performance has been an issue at MIA after a Government Accountability Office report last summer called MIA's passport control lines -- mostly at Concourse E -- the nation's slowest.

The report said that, on average, MIA immigration inspectors took about 50 minutes to process a planeload of international travelers, compared to an average of 30 to 40 minutes at other surveyed airports around the country.

Abreu blamed CBP for the delays, arguing passport control booths were not properly staffed. Winkowski said the problem stemmed from inadequate airport facilities and uneven distribution of gate assignments for arriving flights.

Earlier this year, Winkowski and Abreu called a truce. They agreed on a plan to trim passport control lines by building new passport-control booths at Concourse F -- they open Monday -- and using booths in the Concourse E Satellite terminal reserved for in-transit international passengers.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald

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