All the anticipation about Miami International Airport’s new North Terminal finally bringing relief to weary international passengers has been deflated. Apparently, Customs and Border Protection may not be able to staff all 72 new lanes when the terminal is ready this July.
So Airport Director Jose Abreu is trying to make lemonade out of these sour lemons. He may have to close the airport’s older Central Terminal for customs agents to move to the new terminal, which features 72 stations (up from 32). Instead of being able to move 1,200 passengers an hour, the new lanes would allow for more than 3,000 people to be processed hourly, though previously the feds had promised 4,000.
After two years and a $180-million investment to build the 400,000-square-foot North Terminal, it’s maddening that the federal government didn’t seem to plan for this expansion.
It’s particularly frustrating that the staffing issue comes up just as President Obama has promised to make it easier for international travelers from Brazil to get to Miami without having to wait months for a visa.
Mr. Abreu and Customs officials say they’re working together to find a fix. Good, but if it doesn’t come pronto
, MIA will be forced to close the older terminal’s 36 lanes to steer arriving international passengers to the more comfortable North Terminal.
All terminals — South, Central and North — should be open, but if only 70 new customs workers are trained in time (it’s a two-year process) then the airlines’ investment will be for naught. Miami’s image will be tarnished among the region’s strongest passenger base — the international crowd.
That cannot stand. MIA has been beating international travel records — up 10 percent from last fiscal year. During construction of the terminals (South is also relatively new), “coming soon” signs at the airport gave tired passengers from England to Jamaica hope that on their next trip they wouldn’t have to walk a mile to a Customs booth. Now, it’s unclear if things will improve.
South Florida business leaders have been meeting with federal officials to try to find a way to achieve the type of customer service that travelers expect. Granted, Customs sees its role as security first and always. Yet other countries’ airports have found ways to be both secure and convenient for passengers. Surely, the CBP can match and exceed them.
American Airlines, already fighting for its financial survival, has a strong base in international travel, but how can it be expected to double its flights — to 500 a day — if its passengers have a bad memory of their arrival to MIA, thanks to a bogged-down terminal.
If the Central Terminal has to be closed for a time, it will mean at least a 12-minute walk to get to the North Terminal for passengers arriving on Cayman, Virgin and other airlines. That may seem like a leisurely stroll, but if flights are delayed because of weather or for whatever reason and passengers have to get through Customs before going to another gate to catch a domestic flight, it won’t be either convenient or efficient.
As it is, some 5,000 of American’s international passengers were forced to miss a flight between February and March, largely because of the current Customs set-up in the midst of the construction mess.
The federal government has spent lots of money on beefing up U.S.-Mexico border security, but apparently Miami — the Gateway to the Americas and a growing hub for Europeans — has become an afterthought. Let’s get it right.