A dingy, crowded and unfriendly place for many travelers, Miami International Airport lays out an unwelcome mat to tourists and propels Miami-Dade residents to Broward to catch a flight. Among major airports nationwide, MIA, the leading gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean, ranks within the bottom five from a consumer's perspective. "It's tired and musty dusty, " said Ira Weinstein, president of Air Marketing Services, who surveyed passenger satisfaction for 15 years, at 150 airports. "You're always going through a maze. In the concourses, the concessions are sticking out, so the passenger flow is off. In the gate hold areas, the seating is old and not comfortable." A Herald survey shows airports that compete for MIA passengers are often far nicer places to visit, with Internet stations, more parking spaces per passenger, a wider variety of dining and shopping options and far less crime. Around the world, and close to home, travelers are catching on. Studies show that if given a choice, out-of-towners elect to bypass Miami as a connecting point, Weinstein said. And with other U.S. gateway airports such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Atlanta expanding their flight offerings to Latin America, more passengers are getting a chance to opt away from MIA. Even those who are beginning or ending their trips here are starting to avoid Miami International. Statistics filed with the Department of Transportation show that domestic origin and destination passengers increasingly prefer to fly out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The economic engine that is Miami International Airport is in danger of losing its steam. Travelers should get some relief as the airport moves toward completion of a $5.4 billion expansion of its aging terminals, said airport director Gary Dellapa. The work, he said, will make MIA "a more pleasant experience." The Herald hired four phantom travelers - professional consumer-service surveyors - to rate the airport from a passenger's perspective. They found the airport lacking in seating and dining options, and said it has narrow escalators that cannot accommodate luggage and a public address system that is hard to hear. They said parking is a pain, renting a car takes too long, and exiting the airport is confusing and time consuming. One pretend traveler drove around the parking lot for 15 minutes before finding a parking space. Exiting the airport, he said there was "tremendous traffic and people are jockeying for position" amid "trapped exhaust fumes." "I do not think this part of anybody's trip, especially a foreigner, would be easy or pleasant, " he said. Another found the third-floor moving walkway frightening. "If I had been alone without my spouse, I would have been nervous if I saw another person, " she said. "There were no signs of any security staff, if it had been necessary to call for help." Yet another had difficulty finding an information kiosk. "There were no signs posted for the terminal information booth, which makes it difficult to find, " the phantom traveler said. "Once we found the information center, the wait was long, and when it was our turn, there was only one person working with 10 people in line." Other travelers, in hundreds of comment cards on file at MIA, document agonizing experiences. Many were "very dissatisfied" with the courtesy and helpfulness of airport employees, the comfort and availability of seats, the cleanliness and appearance of the terminal and restrooms, and the quality, variety and prices at restaurants and shops. "This is my third round-the-world trip and I have to advise your airport is the worst in the world, " wrote Australian passenger Sue Smalldon. "It is totally confusing. There is no one to help. The signs are next to useless and it is user unfriendly." "What a dump!" said another traveler, declining to leave a name. "Demolish this airport and start over!" another passenger wrote MIA. "It's hopeless!" In dozens of lengthy complaint letters, frustrated passengers said they were treated rudely - by ticket counter personnel, security guards, porters, store employees and restaurant workers. They said they were ripped off at the phone-card machines and at baggage wrapping. They cited long waits and high prices, and complained that English was a language too few employees spoke or understood. "This is the worst-organized airport I have ever visited (including what are considered third world), " wrote Sian Hughes of Flintshire, United Kingdom. "My first visit to Miami, and it will be my last, " wrote A.G. Kingscott of Long Eaton, United Kingdom, after waiting in line 30 minutes at baggage storage. "I travel all over the world and this airport is shameful, " wrote a Spanish-speaking traveler. But for crooks and thieves, particularly those who prey on luggage, Miami International is paradise. American Airlines, the airport's dominant carrier, with 49 percent of the passengers, has more baggage theft and pilferage at MIA than at any other city in which it flies. The airport accounted for 42 percent of its thefts in 1997, yet only 11 percent of its traffic. The carrier declined to provide figures for 1998. And American is not the only airline with such problems. Ask Rebecca Low, a computer teacher at an international school in Santiago, Chile, who traveled through Miami on LanChile, en route to Munich last Christmas. In her checked sport bag were wrapped gifts and trinkets - souvenirs such as knit caps, a lapis necklace, Chilean cookies and a three-bottle set of red wine. Low carefully wrapped each bottle with plastic bubble wrap and paper, and placed the package between wool sweaters for added protection. But when she picked up her bag at the carousel in Miami, it was dripping red wine. Two bottles had been broken, their contents soaking her sweaters. Every gift had been torn open. The necklace was gone. A cookie had been unwrapped, half-eaten, and tossed back into the bag. "It had to have been in Miami, " Low said. "Otherwise, the wine would have been gone, and I could wring out the sweaters." Miami's congestion may also drive passengers away. While passenger volume is rising at most U.S. airports, including Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood - up 12.6 percent January through August - passenger traffic at MIA is flat year-to-date. Increasingly, local travelers such as Beber/Silverstein advertising executive Ann Marie Drozd, who works in Miami and lives in Aventura, prefer Fort Lauderdale. Call it Miami flight. "Like it or not, Fort Lauderdale has become the destination airport of choice, " said Coral Gables aviation consultant Stuart Klaskin, partner in Klaskin, Kushner & Co. "It's not worth the headaches at Miami." The guidebook Fodor's 99 Miami & the Keys even advises visitors under "Smart Travel Tips": "If you're destined for the north side of Miami-Dade County (metro Miami), consider flying into Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International; it's much easier to use than Miami International." Aviation consultant Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo., defends MIA. "People confuse crowds for inefficiency, " Boyd said. "A crowded airport is an indication of a viable airport." But crowds may also lead Miami to stack up poorly against competitors on certain key consumer variables, such as ease of parking and safety, a Herald survey showed. MIA competes for its key Latin American traffic with such airports as John F. Kennedy International, Dallas/Fort Worth International and Bush Intercontinental Airport/Houston. Miami offers only 45 parking spaces per 100,000 enplaned passengers, vs. 122 in Houston, 116 in Dallas/Fort Worth and 70 at JFK. Crime statistics for MIA, including the cargo area and the direct vicinity of the airport, are the highest of five airports polled - 25 incidents per 100,000 enplaned passengers, vs. three in Dallas/Fort Worth, five in Fort Lauderdale, 11 in Orlando and 20 at JFK. Miami also stands out, in a negative light, among Florida airports in other ways, said Weinstein, the market researcher. "Overall, the Florida airports do well, they let the sun in, they have a high level of service, they're clean and well maintained, they understand customers' needs, and they don't confuse passengers, " he said. "And that's not true of Miami in my judgment and in the judgment of passengers." Passengers don't rank Miami high on their list of favorite airports. The airport is absent from the industry's two "best airport" surveys: OAG's Airport of the Year listings and the International Air Transport Association's Airport Monitor rankings, which are based on passenger responses. Orlando International was named the No. 1 airport in North America for overall passenger convenience in the IATA's 1997 listing, based on international passengers. Other top U.S airports were Atlanta, Chicago's O'Hare and Minneapolis/St. Paul. In OAG's most recent listing, frequent travelers worldwide rated Cincinnati as the best airport for the Americas, followed by Denver and Orlando. Neither organization will say how far down the list Miami falls. Dellapa, the airport director, doesn't dispute the complaints against MIA, saying they validate what the airport's own analysis has shown. "The facilities are too small and too old for the volume of passenger traffic, " he said. "It is congested. It is crowded." But Dellapa said that by 2006, when the expansion project is completed, the terminal will be much wider and brighter, with higher ceilings, better acoustics, and more parking outside. For travelers such as Weinstein, the change can't come soon enough. The last time he flew through Miami, packs of teenagers were sitting on the floor, blocking his entry to the gate. "That shouldn't be, " Weinstein said. "I travel all over the world and it doesn't happen like that. It says nobody is in control of this mess."