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Miami Airport Joins the Beautiful

MIAMI ( TheStreet) -- It cost too much and it took too long, but the renovation of Miami International Airport is finally nearing completion.

The project began in 1995, billed as a $975 million new terminal for hub carrier American (AMR). The scope and the cost both swelled. American's terminal ended up costing $3 billion, while other improvements, including a new terminal for United (UAL - Get Report) and its partners, brought the total cost to $6.4 billion.

Today, of the country's three leading international gateway airports -- Los Angeles, Miami and New York -- Miami is the only one where new construction is not badly needed. Los Angeles spent years quarreling with its airline tenants over fees, and now is working on a $1.5 billion international terminal. New York Kennedy has made some major improvements, including new terminals for American and JetBlue (JBLU - Get Report), and now is working on a new $1.3 billion terminal for Delta. (DAL - Get Report)

Sections of LAX and JFK both made The Street's list of the country's five ugliest airports, compiled in December.

Two years ago, when the economy tanked, MIA director Jose Abreu was under pressure to halt construction. "They said it would be impossible to borrow money because it wasn't available, and the airport should postpone," Abreu said in an interview with TheStreet.

"But my pitch was, 'Look, over $75 billion worth of airport terminal work is needed throughout the nation, and a lot of it has not even started, and we need to finish this thing,'" he said. "At the end, we will be ahead." At Miami's 2009 annual State of the Ports luncheon, Abreu played a Red Hot Chile Peppers song called "Can't Stop."

It now seems clear the approach was justified. In 2010, passenger traffic at MIA grew 5.0%, to reach 35.7 million, as carriers added eight new international destinations including Berlin, Brasilia (on two carriers) and Moscow. International traffic accounted for 17 million passengers, making MIA the country's second biggest international airport after New York Kennedy. This year, the Skyteam alliance is growing, with Delta adding daily service to London Heathrow while KLM begins four weekly flights to Amsterdam. Other carriers plan Amsterdam and Lisbon service.

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