Miami-Dade County

Vote forces MIA to crack down on outside baggage wrappers in plan mayor calls ‘ludicrous’

Wrapping luggage in plastic for protection on international flights is big business at Miami International Airport. Travelers preparing to fly to Cuba from MIA in this 2009 file photo get their luggage wrapped before their flight.
Wrapping luggage in plastic for protection on international flights is big business at Miami International Airport. Travelers preparing to fly to Cuba from MIA in this 2009 file photo get their luggage wrapped before their flight. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Outside luggage wrappers face a crackdown from Miami International Airport after county commissioners voted Tuesday to impose new rules opposed by both aviation officials and Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who called the plan a “ludicrous” boon to the only company wrapping baggage inside the airport itself.

“You’re trying to solve the vendor’s problem by causing problems for the airlines and the airport,” Gimenez said. “It’s nonsensical to me.”

Passed on a 10-2 vote, the new rules carried enough support to override the veto that Gimenez strongly hinted was coming as elected officials once again feuded over the lucrative practice of wrapping luggage in plastic in Miami. Popular with international travelers to protect luggage from damage and airport pilfering, wrapping is cheaper when provided by companies outside MIA but also brings the risk of being undone by federal screeners.

Safe Wrap has the exclusive right to wrap luggage inside MIA, a contract that also gives it authority to re-wrap luggage opened by federal inspectors searching for explosives and contraband. The company also is a prominent donor for commission races, having given about $55,000 to incumbents in the last two years, according to a Miami Herald review.

If we go away, the only one that pays is the consumer. Because the price on the ticket for the plane will go up.

Safe Wrap owner Radames Villalon

The company lobbied for regulating outside wrappers, and the adopted resolution requires the Gimenez administration to craft standards for competitors that are as strict as those “met” by Safe Wrap.

Commissioners argued that the new rules would boost revenue-sharing dollars that Safe Wrap must pay Miami-Dade and protect travelers from unwittingly paying for sub-par wrapping services. “We need to try and get as much money into this airport as possible,” said Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, who received about $13,000 from Safe Wrap executives and related entities during his 2014 reelection campaign. “This is a financial matter.”

MIA officials said imposing new rules would only mean higher costs and inconvenience for MIA passengers without bringing any benefit to the airport, and also that airlines oppose having to enforce new local regulations on how luggage is wrapped. MIA officials said the Transportation Security Administration does not enforce rules on luggage wrap, but that adding a set of local restrictions on baggage is bound to bring delays at an airport that handles about 40,000 pieces of luggage a day.

“The lines are going to back up,” said Ken Pyatt, MIA’s deputy director. “That’s just based on the mathematics of each transaction being elongated.” Added MIA director Emilio Gonzalez: “We’re going to be a laughingstock if this gets passed.”

You’re trying to solve the vendor’s problem by causing problems for the airlines and the airport.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

While Miami-Dade owns MIA, the bulk of its budget comes from fees that airlines pay to use runways and terminals. Those fees increase if MIA can’t make enough money from vendors like Safe Wrap, which pays to operate at the airport. Safe Wrap owner Radames Villalon touched on that arrangement after the meeting when he thanked commissioners for the vote.

“I appreciate the effort of all these commissioners that are looking [out] for the community,” he said. “Because if we go away, the only one that pays is the consumer. Because the price on the ticket for the plane will go up.”

Commission Chairman Jean Monestime and Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava voted against the measure, and Commissioner Sally Heyman did not attend the meeting. The 13-member commission needs a two-thirds vote to override a mayoral veto, meaning a nine-vote majority is considered veto proof. Gimenez has 10 days to veto the resolution; then he could work on pulling two of the yes votes over to his side.

Asked if he planned a veto, Gimenez said: “I think one is necessary.”

Safe Wrap executives did not speak during the meeting, but the company has complained that wrapped luggage from outside companies caused severe problems on MIA’s baggage-handling system. MIA executives said the alleged problems didn’t exist. Several commissioners said they traveled to Safe Wrap’s facilities to see a test that showed the company’s wrapped bags faring better than competitors’ did.

Safe Wrap won its most recent MIA contract in 2013 over a veto by Gimenez, who wanted the deal awarded to the company that held the franchise at the time, Sinapsis. It was one of the most contentious procurement fights in recent memory and highlighted the high stakes involved for a service that’s hard to find in most major airports.

While Safe Wrap runs kiosks at MIA, outside wrappers typically operate out of vans that travel to hotels and private homes to wrap luggage in plastic. Safe Wrap charges about $20 per bag, smaller competitors will wrap luggage for less than $10. They say the lower prices let them compete with the convenience Safe Wrap offers at MIA, and that their customers willingly take on the risk of having their luggage be left unprotected if opened by the TSA.

Rosaly Oliveira, who recruits her mother to help wrap luggage for Miami Zando Wrap when tourism season heats up, said she was surprised commissioners went against the airport’s objections to cracking down on businesses like the one she owns with her husband. “We felt like we’re not protected,” she said. “Because we don’t have money and don’t have power.”

Safe Wrap pays nearly $10 million a year to MIA, which constitutes the minimum amount of rent in its contract. The company has not yet hit the $18 million revenue target that would kick in a revenue-sharing deal, airport officials said. Gimenez said he was willing to consider a lower minimum-rent amount for Safe Wrap in order to avoid the new baggage-wrap rules, which he said would cost far more to enforce than MIA might earn from higher revenue-sharing proceeds.

In his comments, Gimenez noted that Safe Wrap pioneered the practice of wrapping luggage outside of MIA, a tactic that helped sap dollars from Sinapsis. He argued that it wasn’t fair for Safe Wrap to now complain that outside wrappers were a problem.

“We knew there was outside wrapping,” Gimenez said. “This isn’t something that is new.”

This version was changed to use the more familiar brand of Safe Wrap for the company with the baggage-wrap contract at Miami International Airport.

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