Former aviation chief Elder says county needs independent panel
By Sherri C. Ranta
Before Angela Gittens was director of the Miami-Dade County Aviation Department, Rick Elder resigned from the job.
After Ms. Gittens resigned last week under pressure, many turned to Mr. Elder for comment since both left the job amid controversy and after clashes with American Airlines and county officials.
Mr. Elder resigned in 1993, four years after taking the job. Ms. Gitten resigned Friday after being hired in 2001 by former county manager Merrett Stierheim.
Ms. Gittens' drawn-out saga was emphasized in October when American Airlines officials said they wanted out of management of the $1.7 billion North Terminal project and could no longer work with Ms. Gittens.
County Manager George Burgess took Ms. Gittens off the $4.8 billion airport capital-improvement project the same day. Her working relationship with Mr. Burgess deteriorated until her resignation.
The battle, played out in letters, memos and county meetings, is proof that Miami needs an independent aviation authority, one that cannot be touched by politics, said Mr. Elder.
"This should be proof enough that we have to have an independent authority that is completely divorced from politics - where American Airlines cannot manage the airport through their power with elected officials," he said Tuesday.
Mr. Elder, now an international aviation consultant who works with companies and governments around the world, said he is one of at least five airport directors who have clashed with American and lost their jobs because of it.
"The airport director is not there to support American," he said. "The airport director is there to support every single carrier out there."
Miami-Dade County, he said, needs to recognize that if American Airlines leaves or goes bankrupt, taxpayers would be stuck paying off debt on the North Terminal. Airlines fees, according to county officials, are designated to pay the bonds.
Mr. Elder said he presented a $500 million plan in 1993 to put American Airlines at the center of the airport - a plan designed to centralize the major carrier and make it easier for passengers to get to it from connecting flights.
But American officials rejected the plan, he said, saying they could build their own terminal for a comparable price.
Eleven years later, American Airlines' North Terminal is more than $1 billion over its original estimate and 1.5 years late. It's scheduled for completion in 2007.
Ms. Gittens, speaking a month ago when she was taken off the airport's expansion project and charged with only its day-to-day operations, said she is concerned about rising costs and delays at the terminal.
She wanted American to complete ongoing projects there and give back the remaining work to the county to manage. Overall, she said, the airport expansion is going quite well, though she said she was concerned about the scope of the $4.8 billion project - the second-largest capital program of any operating airport.
The program has been downsized because of expectations of fewer passengers than originally projected, she said.
"It's an awfully risky investment given that Miami is in the bull's eye of Homeland Security efforts and international trade and tourism."