Airport chief's exit proves need for an un-American pilot
By Michael Lewis
"You can't beat American Airlines," my Saturday-morning caller said.
He wasn't talking about great flights, but great fights.
American had just flown another departure - another Miami-Dade aviation director out who wouldn't knuckle under to American's demands. This time it was Angela Gittens. Earlier, it was Rick Elder.
Mr. Elder had opposed American's plan for a mile-long, $500 million terminal for its massive expansion here. He got the boot the next day.
Ms. Gittens, stuck a decade later with that mile-long monster still only half-done and now costing $1.6 billion as American itself managed construction, had opposed public payment for new $87 million overruns - especially since American had solemnly pledged after earlier $211 million county-financed overruns that the public would never again foot the bill. She got forced out Friday.
Earlier, Ms. Gittens had blown the whistle on a $6 billion airport expansion in the face of shrinking demand. She got the project cut to $4.8 billion - but she couldn't protect us from the political muscle of the world's largest airline as it sought free rein in the public purse.
Ms. Gittens wouldn't roll over for American, the county administration would - and she was gone.
Unfortunately, American might not be far behind her.
Aviation economics are in freefall. American, already sputtering, is paying a half-billion dollars more than it expected this quarter just in soaring jet-fuel costs. Last month, it announced 1,100 pilot and mechanic job cuts - and last week followed up by saying after Jan. 1 even more jobs will be cut.
Some major carriers are already in bankruptcy. How far behind can American be?
New carriers are flying to lower-cost airports - including Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, one of the fastest-growing in the US - while Miami International has lost about 4 million annual flyers since it started its massive expansion to handle an anticipated 7 million rise.
Prospects for Miami International were already bleak as it lost flights due to its high landing costs. As expansion bills inflate and drive costs higher, demand will continue to slacken, raising the cost per passenger even more and driving away more traffic in a sickening spiral.
With aviation in turbulence and Miami International airsick, the last straw was County Manager George Burgess yanking the controls from Ms. Gittens, a respected, experienced airport pilot, and handing them to an administrator who had been running bus and rail operations.
That hands true control to American Airlines, whose clout with 9,000 local employees deterred business chieftains last summer from a referendum for an aviation authority. Miami Business Forum leaders still call for reform but say they'd settle for procurement controls, which would protect American Airlines from pushback from an authority that would represent aviation customers and other airlines as well as American.
The problem with doing American's bidding - aside from shoving more costs down our throat - is that we can't put all of our eggs in one airline's cargo hold. We did that with Eastern - remember? And remember Miami's plight when Eastern went belly-up, leaving thousands here jobless and the airport in peril?
No corporation should hold sway over Miami International Airport, the county's undisputed gateway and economic engine.
Nominally, the airport's head reports to the county manager and he to the county commission. In fact, commissioners call the signals on contracts and American seems to call the plays for airport management.
Play ball with American and you're fine - though the public might not be. Ruffle American's wingtips and you're aviation history.
Unfortunately, timing of the change couldn't be worse for new mayor Carlos Alvarez, who was elected with a pledge of clean government. First he said he'd keep Mr. Burgess as manager. Then Mr. Burgess forced an airport exit in what was anything but a clean fight - or a smart one for the community or himself.
Ms. Gittens' exit under fire adds substantial weight to a grand jury demand for an aviation authority. It proves that we must totally divorce the airport from county government - and, behind the scenes, American Airlines. When people talk about an "independent" authority, it must be just that - not a puppet like namby-pamby proposals the county commission earlier buried.
This time, it needs to be full-throttle - fully independent.
Critics say an authority isn't necessarily better than county control. Given the forced departure of Ms. Gittens, how could an authority be worse?
For now, the county must find someone to run the airport for American - I mean, for the taxpayers.
Undoubtedly, great candidates exist, maybe better than Ms. Gittens.
I guarantee they won't be coming here. What self-respecting professional would take a job where a single airline - to be fair, any airline - controls job tenure? Any director who would consciously toil in those shackles shouldn't be running our airport.
No, we're destined for either a third-class airport jockey from the outside or a government insider who knows how to play ball with the commission and American.
Would you like cream, sugar or arsenic with that?
As for Ms. Gittens, don't fret about her. There's always a spot for a solid leader who will work for the public interest - one who won't knuckle under to the playground bully. She'll get a good job.
Worry more about Miami, where criteria for an aviation director are to play nice with the county commission and let the bully have his way - at any cost.