Atlanta’s airport is controlled by the city government, and its general manager is appointed by the mayor. But Georgia state Sen. Burt Jones has a different idea. The Republican from Jackson has proposed a state-run authority to take over the airport’s operations. Unsurprisingly, the city doesn’t like that idea.
Since 1998, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International airport has held the title, the “world’s busiest passenger airport.” About 270,000 people come through every day. Over the course of 2018, 107.4 million people did.
And it’s not just a title. It’s meant real dollars, like an estimated $64 billion in economic impact to the state. It’s a big deal and a part of Atlanta’s and Georgia’s identity. That’s something everyone agrees on.
“It’s the jewel of Atlanta,” said Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian. “It drives so much commerce. It drives such a big part of our economy here.”
State Sen. Jones called it “the biggest economic engine the state of Georgia has, and there’s not even a close second.”
But how best to protect this multi-billion dollar enterprise? That’s where the disagreement begins. Bastian said things work great as they are.
Jones thinks the state should take over operations. He argues that past corruption scandals involving the airport and the city government prove the current model is flawed. The region needs something different, he said, “a structure that is more accountable, more transparent, and there’s other stakeholders besides just one individual.”
He’s referring to the mayor. Jones led a study committee last year to look at the airport’s governance. The committee heard about past corruption scandals involving airport contracts. City representatives called these stories ancient history, and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office points to new structural reforms that will prevent any more scandals.
“With the changes that Mayor Bottoms is planning and is making with the new airport director I think people will see the wisdom of maintaining the current structure,” Bastian said. “Changing the governance structure I don’t think is the answer. I think it would disrupt the progress that’s being made over there…we’d rather work with the governance structure we already have.”
Jones said he appreciates the reforms but, “what I’m worried about is after [Bottoms] is gone. Are we going to have somebody that has been like some of the past mayors who have been indicted or investigated or things of that nature.”
He wants a structure less-controllable by one politician.
“The reason why I want an authority is because I don’t want politics to have a huge influence on how that authority operates,” he said.
His proposal includes appointees by the governor, lieutenant governor, commissioners of transportation and public safety and speaker of the house.
The airport’s general manager John Selden is a few months into the job but has a clear opinion on the takeover idea. He used to work at John F. International Kennedy Airport in New York, for a joint state authority board.
“If the airport was run by the state, in reality the governor would run the commission,” he said. “He’s controlling the airport. There’s always somebody who’s in charge. Eventually there’s one person in charge.”
Beyond politics, Selden said the real argument against the authority is economic. He said adding a layer of bureaucracy could risk the delicate formula that controls the airport’s success, that is, its ability to attract airlines as well as passengers.
Atlanta has one of the lowest cost-per-enplanement rates in the country, Selden said. That’s a measure of how much an airline has to pay to use an airport.
“We signed a lease in 2017, the city did, and the airlines wanted to make sure the city ran the airport for 20 years,” he said. “That’s how much this team is appreciated.”
But there’s another reason Jones is interested in a state authority board. He said that the board would be able to decide if Atlanta needs a second airport, something the city has strongly opposed.
“A state authority would represent an independent body an arms-length away from the political process that could do the proper betting, the feasibility studies, the hiring of consultants to tell you should we have a hub in Macon, should we have a hub in Augusta?” he said.
“Why did it matter to the city of Atlanta that Paulding County was going to commercialize their airport? It would have helped Paulding County. But to say essentially that it would have somehow hurt the airlines here at Hartsfield-Jackson or the City of Atlanta, I think was a far stretch,” Jones said of the city’s opposition to the commercialization of the Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport.
Selden said the second hub idea, too, could threaten the success formula for Hartsfield-Jackson and set any new airport up for failure.
“There’s a cost/benefit when you have these economies of scale that really are the true key to why we are so successful here and envied by everybody,” he said.
“You would take this efficient machine that has value pricing and either we wouldn’t be able to invest in its future because you want to build another hub, or you’re going to take the airport and take the efficiency out of it and build another airport in the same airspace.”
Additionally, Georgia risks spending the money on a second airport that wouldn’t get maximum use, Selden said, because it’s not attractive enough to airlines.
“You can build it, but if they don’t come, then you have a Pittsburgh, a Cincinnati, a Saint Louis, where these hubs were built and the business model didn’t support it,” he said.
Plus, Selden argued, there’s no need for it. Hartsfield-Jackson has a lot of room to grow, he said, even if that means one day replacing parking with another runway.
Will It Happen?
So could this takeover really happen? It’s not a new idea around town but has never gone anywhere.
Jones’ bill has a lot of Republican support at the Capitol. But Governor Brian Kemp is non-committal: “I’ve stayed in the posture where I’m continuing to listen to all sides. There’s some for it and some against it. And, we’re just continuing to gather information.”
One thing’s for sure: if Kemp were to support the plan, that would have major implications on the state’s relationship with Atlanta City Hall. Of the issue, Mayor Bottoms said, “It’s at the top of my ask list.”
Could there be a middle ground, like a joint state/city authority?
“I’m not going to negotiate against myself,” Jones said. “I’m willing to listen and I’m willing to talk about my vision and everything but I’m not going to move from my current position because they’ve given me no reason to move. Anyway, so we’ll see how it plays out.”
A city spokesman said there has been “no single reasonable argument posed to justify any State takeover,” and likened the idea to “theft of the airport from the people of Atlanta who have worked for decades to make it the economic engine that it is for the state, region, country and world.”
The proposal now sits before the State Senate Transportation Committee.