One Man's Opinion: Hartsfield Airport Take-Over Will Not Take-Off

"Nothing short, in my opinion, of an attempted theft from the people of Atlanta, and the city of Atlanta," said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms following passage in the Georgia State Senate of a bill to create a state airport authority, to oversee operations of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and other major commercial airports across Georgia.

It was legendary Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield who wined and dined a former U.S. Postmaster General into selecting Atlanta over Birmingham for locating one of the first major U.S. airmail depots, south of the city at the Atlanta Municipal Airport, a formerly abandoned auto race track, still called Candler Field into the early 1940s.

Our capital city's airport grew rapidly, alongside the aviation industry, and its two largest customers, Delta and Eastern airlines. Later Atlanta Mayor Maynard H. Jackson brought about construction of an entirely new terminal and concourses during the 1980s, the Midfield Terminal, its North/South Terminals and Concourses A, B, C, D and what is now T, along with the first Hartsfield-Jackson underground train, were completed for less than a billion dollars. Work was completed well before the arrival of the Democratic National Convention in 1988 and one of Atlanta's most visible 'dances' on the world stage, at the time becoming one of our nation's largest and most modern airports.

Airport operations are an interdependent tapestry of local, state and federal government entities and regulators, interwoven with a broad array of private sector carriers, suppliers and enterprises of all stripe. At Hartsfield-Jackson that requires the daily successful cooperation and interplay of the FAA, TSA, DEA, Department of Homeland Security, City of Atlanta Department of Aviation, Atlanta Police Department and literally dozens of air carriers (foreign and domestic) representing a total of 75,000+ employees and contractors spread across the airport's several thousand acres. Managing this aviation symphony requires a steady and knowledgeable hand for ongoing smooth operations. Delta Air Lines, the airport's largest customer and revenue source (gate fees and passenger fees), remains strong and steadfast in its support of maintaining the current operating structure.

And while allegations, indictments and convictions for bribery, kick-backs and favoritism abound in the City of Atlanta procurement process as well as the awarding and contracting of airport concessionaires, that process is managed by City Hall, and not the airport GM and Director of Aviation. Though this checkered and well-documented history remains cause for pause, the state of Georgia is no babe in the woods when it comes to generous contracts being awarded to insiders and political cronies of the current power structure.

In the case of Hartsfield-Jackson, and most every other major metro area airport in Georgia, the state of Georgia has been largely absent in bond funding, build out and operations and might well be reasonably expected to either assume billions in bonded debt or exchange cash or other assets of some magnitude to take-on any airport ownership or management role. Though the Georgia State Senate has passed a bill, largely along party lines, to create a state airport authority, with Hartsfield as its crown jewel, this proposed legislation currently offers no financial structure or recompense to the existing municipal owners.

It cannot also not be ignored that while our state is largely under GOP control and predominantly white leadership, the elected leaders City of Atlanta and our state’s other major municipalities are predominantly Democratic and more frequently governed by minority political power bases.

Each Georgia General Assembly is a two-year session, bills introduced in one year often live on to be amended or revived during the next. The current Senate bill is unlikely to gain clearance for take-off on the busy House Rules docket before Sine Die in just under a week, but it will certainly return in some form during the 2020 session. Atlanta's Mayor would do well to continue to hone, clean up and strengthen the transparency of Hartsfield’s contracting and vendor selection process, removing the largest arrow in the quiver of those who will continue to stalk bagging the state's largest economic development prize. And as the state’s current GOP leadership rather boldly chooses to stake out some of the more right wing social agenda items for its party's social conservatives...it might not make great electoral sense to simultaneously wound relationships with the political leadership of the state's capital city and other largest MSA's. I'm not a pilot, but even I can see what a bumpy landing that might make for Georgia in 2020.

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