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Parking at Tampa International Airport? Kenny's on the job

Kenny Garcia drives a shuttle from the Economy Lot to the arrival gates at Tampa International Airport. The job -- like traveling -- can be tedious and repeitive, but Kenny tries to keep his passengers entertained. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Dec. 19, 2014

TAMPA

Kenny Garcia's rolling office gets a little gamy now and then. It's the air conditioner — it's a stinker. That's why the world's most famous airport shuttle driver always packs his secret weapon: "Febreze is on point!" he says with a defiant spritz, getting his ride ready for another loop. "You're your own boss in here. Got to keep it nice."

The 29-year-old has spent almost 10 years driving flyers to and from the Economy Parking Garage at Tampa International Airport, usually in Shuttle No. 26, the same number as his birthday — never mind the smelly AC.

The repetition, the tedium, the physical demands of the gig could mess with a dude's mind. In December, some 114,000 passengers will use the economy lot here. That's a lot of 3-mile, 15-minute round-trips from the garage and back, time always of the essence, an endless torrent of travelers and their heaps of physical and emotional baggage, all of which Kenny has to handle with care.

But he loves the gig, relishes the fast, finite relationships with passengers, three- to four-minute stories each. "Sometimes people are happy," he says, holstering his trusty Febreze behind the driver's seat, his office once again fragrantly acceptable. "Then there are those coming back from a funeral or from bad news. You want to make it easy on them."

Full-time driver, full-time caregiver, Kenny makes about $11 an hour. He'll work Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve. He wants his co-workers with kids to be able to spend time with them, "opening presents, being together." He understands family. His dad, a veteran of the Vietnam War, died a few years ago, causing Kenny to put in extra time to keep the family house out of foreclosure. "That was hard." Now there's a new reason to drive, someone else to take care of: In February he'll marry his childhood sweetheart.

He revs the engine. "This job isn't for the weak of heart," he says. "I'm like a wrestler, but I'm throwing bags. I haven't lost much weight. I just got stronger."

He closes the door. He slides his placard, a clean white shingle, above the steering wheel:

"KENNY."

"Let's roll," he says.

• • •

In 2010, Kenny appeared on CBS reality show Undercover Boss. The episode featured ABM Industries, the company that operates the economy lot shuttle buses at TIA. ABM president and CEO Henrik Slipsager, wanting to see how the lower rungs of his empire worked, was the titular honcho, incognito in Tampa as a lousy shuttle driver: swearing at guests, watching, bored, as little old ladies struggled to lift their bags onto the van.

Kenny had "no idea" he was on a TV show; they told him the cameras were for a documentary. He was aghast at Henrik's behavior: the anti-Kenny! "I told Henrik 'If you don't do the right thing, you're out of here!' " So he fired the boss, the only ABM employee with the guts to do so. "Kenny is a star," Slipsager said after he revealed his identity.

The CEO is now helping the kid who canned him to take online business classes, maybe even get him moving up the ABM corporate ladder. Kenny, who went to Hillsborough Community College for a couple of years, is thankful for everything, but he has reservations about relocating to ABM's New York City headquarters. "They're really blunt in that city," he says. "Down here, we're known for being friendly."

• • •

As Kenny steers No. 26, a 14-passenger Ford party bus, toward travelers waiting at the Purple elevators in the economy lot, he turns on the radio. "I like songs people can relate to," he says, finding Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me. "Hey! Elton John!" he shouts, as if hearing the Rocket Man on the radio is an amazingly rare occurrence.

He sits up high in his seat, always on two foam pads. "So I can see all the traffic. You have to know the bus. The speed. Not hitting the brakes too much, people jolting around."

Kenny is like a player-coach these days — dispatcher-supervisor-driver for ABM — orchestrating the vehicular dance of his colleagues, working that walkie-talkie behind the wheel. "He has a special bond with people," says co-worker David Garcia (no relation). "Taking care of people comes naturally to him."

"They all once said I'd never make it in this job," Kenny says, the rare time the smile leaves his face. "My first shift was overnight. My mom helped get me the job, she worked here. I was young: 20, 21. They said I'd quit. That I'd want to party." His mom retired to take care of his dying father. "But I'm still here."

He smiles, shaking off malaise. "Aw man, I have stories, a lot of stories." Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden used to park here. "He was a good guy. You'd be surprised who parks back here." Halloween is crazy, people in masks, makeup. "I always think I'm being pranked." People can get frisky, hot shuttle makeout sessions. "I've seen it all," he says, laughing. Then there was the guy just back from Las Vegas who tipped him $100.

And he'll never forget that couple in their 80s, dead car battery in the dead of night. No one to help them. Except Kenny. He stayed with them the whole time.

He pulls No. 26 up to the waiting passengers. He swings open the door, vaults off those double sit-up pads, a faint swirl of Febreze in the air. His first riders are a businessman and a quiet older couple. "Hello!" Kenny says. "How's everyone doing today? Everyone doing okay?"

• • •

Kenny's patter with guests is crisp, fluid, almost as if he's scat singing. "Does everyone know where their stop is? Would anyone like a water? Is everyone awake?" Murmurs, chuckles, the businessman and the couple trade this-guy's-a-pip smiles. Kenny's fiancee, Jennifer Miranda, says he's like this everywhere: "Even at parties, people are immediately drawn to him."

A few minutes later, Kenny's dropping these same people off near the Southwest skycaps. He carries their luggage down to the curb. ("If people tell us not to touch the bag, that's the policy: We do not touch their bags.") He makes eye contact: "Have a great holiday! I'll see you when you get back!" Both the businessman and the quiet couple tip him. Kenny doesn't look at the cash; he slips the bills into his pocket.

When the bus is empty, he performs his magic trick: Without looking, he can tell you exactly how much someone has tipped him. He knows. He can feel it. He makes about $80 in tips per eight-hour shift. Not great, but Kenny doesn't gripe. Hey, the job is for him to take care of us; not the other way around.

"You ready?" he says, smiling. "Okay, the guy gave me a dollar bill; the couple gave me two dollar bills." He slowly pulls out the crinkly cash. The dollar bill is right. He then unrolls the couple's tip. Two singles. Bingo. Kenny laughs, preparing to take No. 26 on another loop. "I've been doing this a long time."

Contact Sean Daly at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife.

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