BY LINDA MARX | PHOTOS: CARLOS HIDALGO
Miami International Airport is the second-largest hub in the country for international ravelers, welcoming 70 percent of all international travelers to the state—and it’s growing. Here’s how.
With a total of 109 airlines at the end of last year, Miami International Airport (MIA) is home to more carriers than any other. In fact, with 27 new airlines and 32 new routes since 2012, MIA is booming. This year, new air service includes Volaris to Guadalajara and Mexico City, Mexico; Qatar Airways Cargo to South America, Europe and the Middle East; First Air to Mount Hope, Ontario, Canada, Ocean Air dba Avianca Brazil; WOW Air to Reykjavik, Iceland; Aer Lingus to Dublin, Ireland, and, after three years of negotiations, in November EL AL will be available flying nonstop from Miami to Tel Aviv, Israel. “We wanted to take MIA to another level,” says Emilio T. Gonzalez, director and CEO of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department that oversees and operates MIA. “We are the gateway to Latin America, and now we want to be gateway to the world.”
The airport, which was founded in 1928 and is the property of the Miami-Dade County government, offers more flights to Latin America and the Caribbean than any other U.S. airport. It’s the busiest airport in the state, and the top international airport for international freight.
Even given those lofty statistics, MIA’s vision is a pretty tall order. It hopes to grow from a recognized hemispheric hub to a global airport of choice that offers a world-class experience and expanded network with direct passenger and cargo access to all world regions. “We want to open Miami to the world and increase our nonstop routes because they bring money and jobs into the community,” says Gonzalez, who is sharp, articulate and on top of everything that goes on at MIA. “I was happy about EL AL coming, and I am looking at an Asian carrier to add in the next two years. Miami is the only metropolitan airport without a direct Asian route. We need a carrier with expansion in mind.”
The airport is also the leading economic engine for Miami-Dade County and all of Florida, generating business revenue of $33.7 billion annually and welcoming 70 percent of all international visitors to the state. In fact, this airport and its related aviation industries contribute 282,724 jobs directly and indirectly to the local economy. (MIA also gets involved with community events for charity, education, Black History Month, fine arts programs, ecosystems, helping autistic children and honoring veterans, to name a few.) So it’s no surprise that MIA continues growing at a steady pace. It went crazy in 2015, with annual traffic reaching a whopping 44.3 million passengers, then increasing about 8.3 percent each year. Domestic passengers alone increased by 11 percent. Last year, that number reached 23.2 million, while international traffic rose more than 5.5 percent and accounted for 21.4 million travelers, according to airport research.
With the additional carriers and traffic, MIA has had to hire more people to accommodate the growth. Although budget issues caused staff shortages for a while, Gonzalez and his team took care of that problem to be sure every passenger would experience first-class treatment. “We hired about 100 people when we grew by three million passengers so everyone is well taken care of,” he says. “When we grow, we add staff. While our passengers are 50 percent international, we have to hire Americans to work with us.” Some of those staffers speak several languages. For example, a number of those American citizens were born in other countries and speak Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Cantonese, Mandarin, etc. Others have spouses or partners from different countries and learned a second or third language.
Since Latin America and Europe bring the most traffic to and from MIA, there is no problem communicating. Latin America is big because so many people from those areas live and work in Miami or have second or third homes here. Europe is popular because its citizens love South Florida, especially the year-round great weather and exciting cultural and night life. “We are a great brand,” says Gonzalez. “Europeans and Latin Americans invest here, live here, or send their kids to school here, so they are always going back and forth. Plus, they board cruise ships from here. We are an embarrassment of riches.”
Nothing has slowed down MIA’s growth in other areas either, especially cargo. Despite the decline of economies in many Latin American and European markets, MIA remains busy as one of the world’s top 10 air cargo hubs with 1.9 million tons of international freight and 256,891 domestic shipments. “Our cargo area is very important, and we are renovating to make it smarter and faster with more innovative ways to get it moving from sea to air,” says Gonzalez. “People bring in containers to the Port of Miami, then they come to us to fly off. And we are an air pharmacy hub.”
Other airport improvements were completed to accommodate the growth. They include roadway improvements—widening roads and bridges—adding new rent-a-car centers, better ground transportation, and a $6.4 billion capital program encompassing all aspects of airport operations, from the terminal to the cargo facilities mentioned above to the airfield.
The terminal, extending from MIA’s Central, South and North, has added more than four million square feet to the existing 3.5 million square feet of space. The three terminals have a total of 130 gates and 645 ticket counters. One of the most exciting passenger oriented improvements is the North Terminal’s array of new retail stores and restaurants, plus yoga room, children’s play area, seating stations for breast feeding moms, bathrooms (“relief areas”) for service dogs and rescues, and other innovative amenities. MIA won five awards last year for its merchandise, menus and customer service during the Airport Revenue News Conference & Exhibition, which recognizes the best in U.S. airport concessions. It was also voted Best Airport for Shopping by USA Today readers in 2016.
MIA kicked off its recent completion of the multicultural, Florida-themed, North Terminal Marketplace in November 2016, which houses eateries like Estefan Kitchen Express, owned by Latin superstars Gloria and Emilio Estefan; Fig and Fennel, a farm-to-table eatery owned by Icebox Café; Half Moon Empanadas; My Cerviche seafood deli; 305 Pizza; Chefs of the Caribbean; The Penguin Store by Perry Ellis; Maru and Friends, a porcelain doll store featuring artist Dianna Effner designs; a Miami Marlins merchandise store and Cuban Crafters Cigars. And more is on the way. “Our South and Central Terminals are also getting new stores,” says Gonzalez. “We are user-friendly. Our store offerings are changed if a brand we have does not work in the U.S. market. We are a self-licking ice cream cone. We are the first face tourists see when they arrive, and the last face they see when they depart.”
Because of this steady growth, Gonzalez and his team understand the importance of staying modern, up-to-date and pleasing passengers, many of whom now consider air travel to be a drag. While MIA can’t control flight delays, it does aim to make everything else about the travel experience work efficiently. “We are growing and want to be relevant,” says Gonzalez. “But at the same time, we want our passengers to be engaged, happy and safe. Customer satisfaction is at the top of our list.”
THE PUBLIC HAS SPOKEN
Miami International Airport (MIA) ranked fifth among large airports in the J.D. Power 2016 North America Airport Satisfaction Study, up from 18th place. This new ranking is its highest ever and quite a compliment. “Congratulations to the MIA team for raising the bar in customer service,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez. “The Miami-Dade Aviation Department has been working tirelessly to meet and exceed the needs of its customers, and MIA’s performance in the J.D. Power study is a testament to their efforts.”
The results were based on responses from nearly 39,000 travelers who traveled through at least one domestic or international airport during the three months before answering survey questions. Travelers rated airports in six areas: terminal facilities, accessibility, baggage claim, check-in/baggage check, food, beverage and retail, and of course, security check. The study was conducted from January through October 2016.
Security, a top concern for passengers at MIA, is well taken care of, according to Emilio T. Gonzalez, director and CEO of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department that oversees and operates MIA, who says, “Some officers are visible, others are not.” Parking has been upgraded with the inclusion of Uber and Lyft; still, Gonzalez says, another parking garage could be added in the future if needed.
Gonzalez and his team have also focused on social media as a way to ensure more complete customer satisfaction. MIA has a fast-growing social media program, currently interacting with about 120,000 followers daily on a variety of platforms. “Our improvement noted in this recent J.D. Power study and by others is further evidence that we are moving in the right direction to meet customer service expectations of our passengers,” he notes. “What truly separates great airports from good airports is their level of customer service, and we look forward to making MIA an even greater airport this year.”