Protocol officer aims for smooth visits

By Justin Boron

Manuel de Barros' fingers trampled over his keyboard in his fourth floor office in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport terminal, inserting a last minute security checkpoint clearance for a student exchange program representative.

The representative was supposed to meet American Field Service (AFS) students at their arrival gate, but because of increased federal security restrictions, he must have de Barros' authorization to enter the concourse.

Taking the freight elevator, de Barros rushes the clearance downstairs and passes it to a ticket checker, who will confirm the student exchange representative's identity, allowing him to go through security.

Problem solved.

The scramble was prompted by de Barros' cell phone 10 minutes earlier, when the AFS representative called to ask for access to the concourse.

De Barros is the only one who holds the key after the Hartsfield-Jackson Aviation Department created a protocol officer position in 2003.

By his account, he has become the lynchpin for all security clearance requests, streamlining the process for national businesses and foreign consulates who wish to escort their dignitaries from their arrival gates.

Before the Aviation Department created the protocol position, a foreign consulate trying to meet a dignitary would likely have to sort through multiple levels of authorization, he said.

With de Barros, consulates like Korea have experienced a much smoother process in meeting their dignitaries.

"I feel that the protocol office is efficient," said Sung-yup Kim, the consul general for Korea.

"They greatly assisted us when we had some VIP's visit Atlanta some months ago. We hope they will continue to extend this type of treatment to all of our visiting dignitaries in the future." The scope of de Barros' job expands beyond just security clearances. In fact, it may play an unforeseen, critical role in the future of the Atlanta economy.

The accommodation of foreign consulates is part a move to make Atlanta more attractive to international visitors as Gov. Sonny Perdue continues his aggressive recruitment of foreign business, particularly in the competition to win the headquarters of the Free Trade of Areas of the Americas, said de Barros.

"Go shopping in Miami, do business in Atlanta," he said.

Members of the campaign for the FTAA suggested that de Barros' position is an integral part of winning the headquarters.

"The protocol position puts Atlanta in the vanguard in things that make the airport and the city more attractive to international visitors," said Jos? Ignacio Gonz?lez, the executive director of Hemisphere, Inc., which is a non-profit group composed of Atlanta companies that are heading the campaign.

Stringent competition has developed between Miami and Atlanta over the headquarters, prompting Gonz?lez to call Miami-Dade International Airport "a nightmare" to go through.

Miami-Dade officials countered Gonz?lez' disparaging analysis, suggesting that Atlanta is the one playing catch up in protocol.

The protocol program at the Miami airport has been in place since 1988 and consists of eight officers, compared to the five positions under de Barros at Hartsfield, said Irving Fourcand, director of protocol at Miami-Dade.

Jorge Arrizurieta, who is the president of Florida's campaign for the FTAA, said he was proud of Miami's almost two decades of assistance to foreign consuls.

"It's a smart thing for Atlanta to get this started to give some tender loving care to their international visitors," he said.

"In Miami, its part of a formula to make these visitors feel comfortable," Arrizurieta said, adding the implication that the Miami community is just a shopping district was "laughable."

Atlanta's bid for the FTAA won't preoccupy de Barros too much since he said he intends to focus most of his energies on continuing to fulfill consulate requests.

"If we get the FTAA, then we're doing great, if we don't it puts us on the map," he said.