The Secret Life of Miami International Airport

Ever wonder what's really going on behind the scenes at the airport, or what those thousands of airport workers are thinking as they rush around? The Travel Channel's new reality series Airport 24/7: Miami will give us a peek behind the airport curtain when it premieres on October 2. In the meantime, we spoke with the show's "cast" (TSA agents, airport police, terminal operations agents, and more) about the best airport gossip and tips they've been dying to share.

Tony Cooper, Terminal Operations Senior Agent

Q. What's the most shocking thing you've ever found on the job?

Early in my career here at MIA, I was the person in charge of all the public coin lockers. In 1984, I was emptying the lockers with overdue items (lockers were good for 24 hours). I opened one locker and saw what scared the @&#% out of me. There was the upper portion of a human torso wrapped in plastic, the head staring right at me. I immediately called my bosses and the police. (I wanted to quit the job! I could not eat or sleep for a week!) Yes, I found all kinds of things in those early years: drugs, money, guns, and one time a fake claymore mine. But, nothing ever quite as shocking to me as that torso.

Lauren Stover, Director of Security

Q. What are your best tips for breezing through security?

There are two main types of security [that] passengers have to clear at the airport. One is through the front door of the house, which is TSA, and the other is with Customs and Border Protection or CBP if you're arriving into the U.S. Both of these agencies offer an expedited program. My recommendation for the absolute best way to breeze through security at our airport is to enroll in CBP's Global Entry Program regardless—if you're an international traveler or not.

If you are a U.S. citizen or a legal resident you will breeze through both security operations as you get the added benefit of becoming a trusted traveler and participating in TSA's PreCheck program. This will mean (in most cases) you can breeze through the TSA checkpoint leaving shoes on, coats on, and laptops in their case; and [you will be] expedited upon entering into the U.S. It's the best deal going!

If this doesn't work, another way to breeze through security is to plan to get dressed beyond the security checkpoint! It sounds crazy but who cares what you look like. Put belts, accessories and all the bling in a plastic bag in your carry-on. Also bring socks if you have to remove your shoes (and they are wonderful for comfort during [your] flight). This will help you get through security faster. Also some of our checkpoints are busier than others so inquire with the Ticket Document Checker.

Q. Can you tell us about the surprise you recently arranged at MIA for a returning soldier?

We arranged what we called "The Marriage Proposal." We basically were contacted by a local TV station wanting to film the arrival of a soldier returning from Afghanistan who was planning to pop the "big question" to his girlfriend when arriving at MIA.

The TV station received the news from the soldier's father, who indicated his son was coming to Miami to spend a few weeks here and meet her parents. So I called the father and got the information on the "bride-to-be" so I could arrange for her to meet him at the arrival gate. I was in one of those moods and decided to pull one over on him as well, so I orchestrated a surprise for her! I thought it would be fun to make her think that we were helping her surprise her boyfriend at the gate with an "army" of MIA supporters who give big welcomes to returning soldiers. We are huge on honoring our military, so for us we had to give him a big hero's welcome and make her think she arranged it.

I called in the "troops" and we had about 40 employees from CBP, TSA, the Police and Fire departments as well as our Aviation Department employees. Everyone went to the gate as planned and everyone was in on the surprise she was about to get ... kind of like a flash-mob marriage proposal.

We get word from the Tower that the aircraft is on approach and its wheels [are] down in Miami. The plane is now taxiing to the gate and has arrived at the gate. The girlfriend is in position with a receiving line of eager employees all waiting to witness this special moment. I enter the loading bridge and advise the flight attendants and pilot as to what we have going on at the arrival gate, and they page the soldier to come forward. We waited … they paged the soldier again … no one was able to get out of their seat and passengers, who caught on as to what was happening, were getting excited to see this go down. Paged the soldier again … only to find out that he missed the flight!

We had the press, a whole mob scene and this girl thinking she orchestrated all this to surprise her boyfriend and I'm beside myself … the joke was on me! (Of course I'm also thinking, "Poor girl, this is not the best way to begin an engagement.") I go out to the mob with her waiting with bated breath, only to advise everyone he was not on the flight. Everyone was so disappointed and deflated! She checked her cell phone and it turns out he left her a voice message that he missed his flight and was coming in on the next one a few hours later. So we had to regroup and do this all over again … cost us a few bucks in overtime but it was worth it. She said "yes," he got a big "MIA Hero's Welcome Home," and we hope they live happily ever after.

Darius Bradshaw, Terminal Operations Control Room Agent

Q. How do you stay so cool and calm in such a high-pressure job? What's the scariest emergency you've ever had to deal with?

I believe I am able to stay cool and calm in this high-pressure job due to the confidence I have in my coworkers, confidence in my own experiences and training, and knowing whatever situation that presents itself, MIA has the experienced, knowledgeable, and flexible staff to adapt and overcome the situation. I also understand very well that I can't do my job alone and that our jobs are dependent on one another. It's definitely a team effort and there's no "I" in team!

The scariest emergency I've ever had to deal with has to be the events of September 11, 2001, and the days after, up to now. What makes this emergency so scary is that it is not over yet! Every day presents new threats and challenges in providing a safe, secure, and efficient public transportation system. To this day when we have an unattended bag, a door alarm, an unattended vehicle, a suspicious person, or any abnormal activity or sequence of events, our minds have to return to that fateful day, try to figure out how not to have that feeling of helplessness again, and remember each and every one of us can make a difference.

Ericka Middleton, Terminal Security Agent

Q. Are the travelers mean to you?

Travelers are mean, sometimes! It's always pleasant when someone smiles back or expresses their genuine gratitude with respect.

Q. What's the craziest thing someone's tried to sneak through security?

The craziest [thing] I've heard [that] someone tried to sneak through security was a steak knife in a shoe. (So obvious!)

Dickie Davis, Director of Terminal Operations

Q. How did you get into this career?

Right after graduating from college with a degree in Mass Communications, I moved to Miami with dreams of being a writer. Newly married and in need of income, a friend suggested I work at MIA just "until something better comes along." On my first day, I was given a tour of the terminal and it was love at first sight. I was in awe of the complexity of it all, the fast-paced, people-packed environment with palpable excitement and an international flavor. The tour was given by a man who was the airport manager. As we walked, it was immediately clear to me he was in charge and that everyone knew his name. I remember the exact place I was standing when I said to myself, "This is the job I want one day." Today, I have that job and I've loved every minute of it.

I'm a fixer, a problem-solver. Operations is [the] perfect [department] for me. With over 100,000 passengers a day and hundreds of airlines and tenants, there's always something to fix. I'm tenacious about details. You have to be. I've been through it all: fires, hijackings, hurricanes, aircraft disasters, and enough human-interest stories to write a book … hmmmm, maybe I'll just do that.

Q. How has the airport changed in 39 years?

When I started, a busy day brought a whopping 35,000 passengers to the terminal. In those early years, flying was not an everyday experience. It still had a special air to it. Most passengers were businessmen who enjoyed seeing "stewardesses" in their go-go boots and hot pants with beguiling airline commercials like, "I'm Brenda, fly me." In those days, you could smoke everywhere. The terminal had giant four-feet-wide flying-saucer ashtrays filled with sand. Flight information was posted on small felt boards with plastic push-in letters and numbers. Family and friends looked forward [to] coming to the airport and going right to the gate and tarmac to welcome relatives. If time permitted, folks could go up to the open observation decks we had that offered a clear view of the airfield. If the wind was right, you could smell jet fuel in the lobby.

Coincidently, the day I started, July 23, 1973, aviation legend and WWI Ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker died. Looking back on it now, it foreshadowed a cataclysmic shift in aviation. Airline deregulation was signed into legislation in 1978, and all the rules changed. Subsequent gas crises, hijackings, ferocious airline competition, and devastating bankruptcies caused iconic carriers to disappear and the landscape to shift and re-shift for everyone. The rules kept changing. But those of us in aviation are survivors. MIA kept growing and along with it, my role at MIA.

In those early years, there were virtually no women in aviation management. I was the first woman to lead a team in Operations at MIA, not always an easy task in an era of industry giants with "The Right Stuff."

Last year we handled 38.4 million passengers, triple what it was when I started. This January is my 40th year at MIA—to this day it's a wonderful ride.

Ken Pyatt, Deputy Director for Operations

Q. How has the aviation industry changed in the many years that you've been working in it?

When I first started my career in aviation, the airport experience was, for the most part, not automated. Customer check-in was restricted to the gate only, where a hand-written boarding pass with a sticker removed from a seat chart was issued. The ticket counter was primarily for ticket issuance and baggage checking, which was a manual process also. A color-coded cardboard tag with the three-letter airport designator was slapped on the handle, and the bag was placed on the belt which would whisk it away to its designated pier.

The security checkpoint, the iconic barrier separating those who are traveling from those who are not, didn't exist, and customers would walk to the gate unimpeded.

Onboard the aircraft, smoking was permitted, and on all but the shortest of flights a meal was served during breakfast, lunch, or dinner periods. In fact, for most airlines the food and beverage budget was huge, right up there with fuel as a non-salary expense. Airplanes today don't fly much faster than they did then, but the flight seems longer if you're not being fed.

Stewardesses had already transitioned to flight attendants, but most of the traveling public called them stewardesses anyway.

To the airlines, after safety, the customer experience was the most important part of the deal, and travel surveys to measure and rank that experience abounded. Frequent flyers were rewarded with special recognition from the agent, who automatically assigned their seat preference without having to ask. Miles flown were something they kept track of for bragging rights, but had little value otherwise. Times have certainly changed, but the legacy lives on!

Q. How do you make an entire airport run smoothly?

My job is to provide a safe and efficient experience for our customers. I believe that most people expect that and it's what we do well. The industrialist Armand Hammer once said, "If you work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, you tend to get lucky." What frequently separates us from others is "sweating the small stuff." My job is often one of a thousand follow-ups: making sure folks do what they say they're going to do and crossing off items, one at a time, from a never-ending list. Giving customers a good product, day in and day out, is how we're earning our reputation.

Heidi Anthony, Terminal Operations Senior Agent

Q. What are your best travel tips for traveling through major airports?  

Just have fun. This tip is fairly simple, but often forgotten because we are always in a hurry. We usually dwell on the negatives of traveling. But be positive and make your traveling experience as fun and enjoyable as possible! Most people think a vacation begins once they get to their destination, but it really begins as you're traveling to your destination.

The best tip I can give is to [make] an effort to be positive, observe everything around you, and talk to strangers. This is easily accomplished by playing a simple game of people-watching. People-watching is extraordinary. It's about creativity, using the moments of watching to try and guess at where somebody is from or just [make] a mere observation, and embracing what is an amateur social science. It passes time while you're waiting, walking, eating, processing through security or sitting. And MIA is a great place to do it at because of the many different cultures and customs which transit through the airport from around the world. Best of all, it's free and everyone in the family can participate! Just have fun, be positive, and learn about the world as you open your eyes to the world around you. It will make your traveling experience that much better.

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