Challenge for MIA and others: Loosening politicians' grip

 

Experts agree that the only way to remove politics from an airport is to remove the politicians' control of airport spoils. With that in mind, two movements are gaining momentum around the world as airports try to excise the kind of political problems that plague Miami International Airport.

In the United States, many airports are turning to government agencies known as authorities with appointed boards that are supposed to be insulated from politics. In other nations, governments are going even further - selling their airports to private companies. This has become a hot trend everywhere from Britain to Argentina - and even in New York, where Mayor Rudy Giuliani this month sought bids to privatize La Guardia and Kennedy airports. As is the case in Miami, many large airports run by cities or counties have less than sterling reputations. The nation's busiest airport, Atlanta's Hartsfield, operated by the city, is still recovering from waves of corruption in which the airport director was convicted of accepting more than $1 million in bribes. O'Hare, though it's in distant suburbs, is a department of the city of Chicago, and it has a notorious reputation as a place where deals go to the politically connected. "The pressure on local public officials can be enormous, " wrote David Z. Plavin, president of Airports Council International's North American wing, an organization of airport executives. "All the jobs and contracts at airports become 'political pork, ' " he wrote in a newsletter. "It is universally difficult to resist pleas from constituents that they be afforded a piece of the airport's largesse." "Look at the money spawned at these places, " said Lou Turpen, director of Greater Toronto airport, which has been privatized. "Four billion dollars in Toronto. Los Angeles has $10 billion on the table. When there's that kind of money on the table, the game's on and the players are suited up." Because of the political meddling, Plavin wrote, many areas are looking to appointed authorities to take control. The two top-rated U.S. airports for passenger friendliness - Orlando and Cincinnati - are both run by authorities. Orlando's board consists of a majority appointed by the governor, with a minority representing local governments. Step inside Orlando International Airport and enter a place that is a pleasing mall compared to Miami's crowded drabness. Orlando has a Discovery Channel Store, Sea World Adventure Store, Universal Studios shop and Warner Bros. Studio Store - well-known chains not found in Miami. Travelers shop against a backdrop of classical music. Wood chairs, like you'd see on a front porch, are set out for tired travelers. Starbucks, still on the drawing board for Miami's airport, serves customers. PLEASANT PLACE Wallis Lindsay and her husband were once stuck in the Orlando airport for several hours because of a flight delay. "We didn't mind spending the day here, " Wallis Lindsay said last week, browsing in the Discovery store before she returned home to Michigan. Orlando also contrasts to Miami in how it awards contracts. There, a phone-card contract was awarded after competition. Here, three politically connected firms have operated for years under no-bid "test permits." Authorities, however, are not automatically better. In Broward, the Port Everglades Authority was abolished a few years ago after taxpayer outrage at seaport spending for everything from gold rings to sporting tickets. The biggest and best known, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, consists of members appointed by the two governors. It's a "basket case, " said consultant Steve Steckler, president of Infrastructure Management Group in Maryland, an airport consulting group. "It's one of the most inefficiently run organizations in the world." MAYOR'S SOLUTION The situation is so bad that Mayor Giuliani wants to privatize the airports, though the port's contract doesn't expire for 15 years. "The crux of the problem is that the port authority is a very large bureaucracy that has been built up to create all sorts of conflicts of interest, " said Tony Coles, the mayor's senior advisor. With any authority, the key is what type of person gets appointed to the board. Said Plavin of the airports council: "The problem is you can start out by appointing business people, but that can change, and it may be later political people get appointed. "The real question is, what is the local will? It's very tough for locally elected officials to let go. If the local will is to create a businesslike model, that can be done. If the mayor wants to say, 'Hire this guy, ' or 'Give that guy a contract, ' then he won't want an authority." In Orlando, Executive Director Egerton van den Berg wrote the legislation that created the aviation authority in the 1970s to ensure that the growing airport didn't get lost in the shuffle of city issues. AGENCY IN CHARGE The Orlando City Council approves some major issues, such as land purchases or bond issues. But the authority runs the airport on a daily basis, and van den Berg said it's rare that a contract involves a lobbyist. In Miami-Dade, airlines have hired dozens of lobbyists and the County Commission spends months shaping bid specifications on everything from janitorial services to luggage carts. In Washington, D.C., the airport authority recently oversaw major construction programs of $1 billion each at the two airports. The one at Dulles came in within 8 percent of budget, the one at National within 16 percent. That contrasts to MIA, where the construction price tag has soared 38 percent since 1994 and is still climbing. MIA averages 328 days to select an engineering or architectural firm to do a job, according to records. In Washington, Toronto, Tampa and Orlando, it usually takes no more than 120 days. OTHER CHOICES There are other alternatives. Four states - Alaska, Hawaii, Maryland and Rhode Island - run their areas' major airports. A few places, like Sarasota, have elected boards whose sole purpose is overseeing airports. Another trend is privatization. "If you really want to shake up your local politicians, just put the 'P' word in your article, " Steckler suggested. Privatization started in the 1980s in Britain. The government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher turned its British Airports Authority into a private company and sold its stock to the public, thus collecting $2.5 billion for government coffers. The trend spread quickly to other nations, such as Argentina, which welcomed both the cash payments and the foreign capital needed to develop airports. In the United States, the poster child for the "P" word has been Indianapolis, where a British company, BAA-USA, has managed the airport since 1995. Its pay is based on how well it does on net non-airline revenue such as food and retail concessions. The higher this figure, the less money is needed from airlines in landing fees. The lower the landing fees, the cheaper the airport is for passengers and cargo carriers. Dennis Rosebrough of BAA said that in the four years the company has been running the airport, it has increased net non-airline revenue by a third. PROPERTY RETAINED Unlike other countries, where the airports' land and buildings are sold to private companies, an Indianapolis government authority still owns the airport property, because federal regulations make it almost impossible to sell airport land and buildings. Some airport executives are warning that it would be a mistake to rush to privatize because the public will lose its say in how airports are run. Michael Boggs, former manager of an Oregon airport, wrote in a trade publication that Indianapolis had a reputation as a well-run airport even before BAA took it over. In San Antonio, Efren T. Gonzales, acting aviation director, complained in a trade publication that BAA was giving politicians gifts to win their votes for privatization. In Miami, some reforms are on the books and others are being weighed. This year, the county tapped two former law enforcement officials to help oversee airport contract and security issues. Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas said he and Commissioner Jimmy Morales are drafting legislation that would take county commissioners out of the contracts business. LEGISLATION DRAFTED Last week, State Rep. Luis Rojas, R-Hialeah, went a step further, asking the House to draft a bill creating an independent airport authority to manage MIA. County Attorney Robert Ginsburg doubts that legislators have that power. "I don't believe they can unilaterally take over a county department. It would require County Commission approval." Rojas' suggestion was not the first time the idea has come up. In 1996, Commissioner Pedro Reboredo urged that an independent authority be set up to stop politicians' meddling. A Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce panel concluded that "decisions at the airport are sometimes hampered by political considerations, " but the panel recommended only that the commission consider the possibility of an authority. Ed Bell, chair of the chamber panel, said he didn't push hard because he sensed that an authority was "one of the least popular subjects among all county commissioners. . . . What struck me was the real complex nature of that kind of conversion - setting up a trust, a conveyance of public assets. Unless there is a real political will to find a new structure, it would almost seem like suicide." In July 1996, Commissioner Natacha Millan requested that the commission delay considering the matter. Her motion passed, 7-5. Reboredo said he knew what had happened: Lobbyists who make their living off commission-approved contracts worked behind the scenes to kill the proposal. "The ones who notoriously benefit from politics in the airport are the ones doing the lobbying." Herald research editor Elisabeth Donovan contributed to this report.

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