Miami International Airport says it's cleaning up North Terminal mess
By Lou Ortiz
The massive $2.85 billion expansion of the North Terminal at Miami International Airport lacked clear plans and direction when Miami-Dade County took over construction from American Airlines in early 2005.
But that's all changing since county Aviation Director Jose Abreu took control of the project after being named head of the department in July 2005, county commissioners say.
The project includes 48 international and domestic gates, two regional gates, 242 ticket counters, an automated people mover with four stations, a baggage claim system with conveyors totaling 9.5 miles that can handle 45,000 bags a day, security checkpoints and concessions.
"This is huge," said Mr. Abreu about the terminal, which is a mile long. "It's the largest airport terminal under construction in the world today."
A big terminal, and a big headache for Mr. Abreu, who with his staff had to decipher and sift 90 construction and professional services contracts for the expansion that American Airlines left in the county's lap.
The contracts were missing county contractual language, were prepared under Texas law and "had to conform to Florida law," said Ana Sotorrio, the department's associate director of governmental affairs. "For us, everything is a very bureaucratic process."
After an extensive review of the 90 contracts, the department has gone ahead with 30 of them, and there are plans to add 16 more, Mr. Abreu said, adding that American provided $105 million to settle contract claims. The value of the remaining contracts is about $700 million.
"We're still on catch up from the old American Airlines agreements, assumed claims, liabilities and jobs," said Commissioner Sally A. Heyman. "I'm pleased with the job Jose is doing. I'm so sad he was saddled with so many problems he didn't have any control over."
Ms. Heyman added that Mr. Abreu's "administration is cleaning up the mess."
But activating contracts has been a piecemeal, painstaking process. The department must get preliminary approval for each contract from the county commission's Airport & Tourism Committee, followed by the 13-member commission. Each appearance by Mr. Abreu and his staff, whether at a committee or commission meeting, is usually a day-long affair.
"We have an awesome challenge," Mr. Abreu said. "I'm having to go back and explain these contracts one at a time. But explaining this thing is not easy. I give them the good news and the bad news upfront."
The commission hopes to end the lengthy process in June when commissioners will gather for a workshop on the remaining terminal contracts.
At the workshop, the aviation department plans to outline individual contracts, the costs of each, those completed and contracts that were not activated.
"If we're successful in the workshop, the worst for the North Terminal will be over," Mr. Abreu said. "Then we can pace ourselves."
The project was begun by American Airlines, which the county commission authorized to administer the expansion, in the late-1990s and should have been completed in 2004, Mr. Abreu said. That date has been pushed back to March 2011.
"We got the program at various stages of construction," he said. "Each year in a transitional manner we'll be gaining gates. We'll be opening the terminal as sections are completed."
Mr. Abreu said the last piece of the expansion is the 400,000-square-foot federal inspection services area.
But progress continues. Two gates in the North Terminal were opened this month, three more will open later this year, and two more in 2009, said Greg Chin, media relations manager for the department.
There have been no new problems, Ms. Heyman said. "That is not happening. I'm excited and delighted."