On Thursday afternoon, cutting it close to the Legislature’s Crossover Day deadline, sponsors of a Senate bill that could see a state takeover of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport appeared to hopeful, despite an only 17 percent chance that the measure would pass, according to predictions made by analysts at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
As of press time, the bill in question was still being debated in session. If passed, the measure would be in for a major fight in the State House of Representatives.
In response to the clearing of the bill through the Georgia Senate’s transportation committee, 5-4, organizations, city officials and executives have argued that a state takeover could seriously disrupt an ecosystem that has, for the most part, run successfully and smoothly.
On Feb. 20, Georgia Senator Burt Jones (R-Jackson) introduced Senate Bill 131 (SB 131), legislation that would seek to create a state authority to oversee the City of Atlanta-controlled Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
“(SB 131) comes as the result of a 2018 study committee I chaired regarding the presiding authority over Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport,” Jones said in a March 5 commentary in the Jackson News-Argus, his local newspaper. “While most airports are run by the local municipality, like Hartsfield-Jackson, the committee found a pattern of corruption and unethical behavior under this type of management structure.
“Because of this, the recommendation of the committee was for the General Assembly to create an authority management structure exclusively for the airport similar to the structure of the Georgia World Congress Center or the Georgia Ports Authority,” he added.
In December 2018, a Senate study committee led by Jones examined a state takeover of the airport. In its assessment, the committee recommended the creation of a state authority to oversee the economic asset, citing Atlanta’s recent bribery scandals and probes into misuse of airport funds and best practices for airport management.
The legislation in question, SB 131, was cosponsored in the Senate by four fellow study committee members, Brandon Beach, Mike Dugan, Tyler Harper, and Jeff Mullis, and one Senator not on the committee, Matt Brass. All the bill’s co-sponsors are Republican senators.
Last Tuesday, Feb. 26, the Senate’s transportation committee passed the bill with a 5-4 vote.
“Last Wednesday, this legislation passed through the Senate’s Transportation Committee with one amendment, which would allow the provisions that I have specified to be overturned if the General Assembly and the City of Atlanta can come to a joint governance plan by July 1, 2020,” Jones said about the bill’s passage in the transportation committee. “I think this is an extremely pragmatic way to give the City of Atlanta the chance to make the necessary changes, while still holding them accountable.
“I believe that the municipality and the Legislature are fully capable of coming up with an alternative to the current, broken system,” he continued.
The bill as written would create a state authority, a “Georgia Major Airport Authority,” to oversee the airport controlled by the state legislature and constitutional officers, removing control of the airport from the City of Atlanta. It would essentially give the newly-created authority oversight of all construction, equipment, improvement, maintenance, and operations at Hartsfield-Jackson.
Those who oppose the legislation, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms, have suggested that the attempt to take over Hartsfield-Jackson is nothing more than a ploy to legally wrestle away the city’s asset.
“State Senators that usually champion small government and local control have made a sweeping power grab to take what they did not build,” the Mayor said Thursday. “This is an unnecessary and irresponsible affront to the City that could destroy what has been a productive, cooperative relationship with the State of Georgia.
“There is no economic rationale for this theft,” she added. “This very conversation not only risks destabilizing existing development and investment at the airport but threatens existing and future job growth for both the City and State.”
For John Selden, the general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson, the passage of SB-131 would be not only a huge disruption to the airport and Georgia economy but also a huge distraction to the incredible reputation it enjoys among its peers
“For almost 100 years, the (City of Atlanta) has run this airport,” Selden said. “If you look at what we have accomplished in those 100 years, it’s truly amazing. We’re the most efficient, busiest passenger airport in the world.
Selden shared that Hartsfield-Jackson enjoys an 85 percent rate regarding its flights leaving on time, which is number one in the U.S. for large airports — a testament to its reputation as the most efficient and busiest for the last 20 years.
“To disrupt this model, where we have this wonderful relationship with our airline stakeholders, our federal partners, the City of Atlanta, the region, our economic partners that we do business with, and all of the employees—the 63,000 employees that work here at this airport—I don’t what they are trying to (accomplish),” he said. “The airport is a magnificent, efficient running, complex operation, and to almost capriciously make a ruling to take the entire thing over, is problematic.”
As the state’s largest employer—with more than 63,000 airline, ground transportation, concessionaire, security, the federal government, City of Atlanta and Airport tenant employees—Hartsfield-Jackson averages 275,000 passengers a day with around 2,700 arrivals and departures daily.
Hartsfield–Jackson also serves as the primary hub of Delta Air Lines, and serves a focus city for low-cost carriers Frontier Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Spirit Airlines.
The City of Atlanta has touted the Hartsfield-Jackson airport as Georgia’s largest economic asset, with an estimated regional impact of $64 billion and 448,696 jobs.
“This airport, being as complex as it is, with 27,000 flights a day, with 275,000 people coming through this building, and being run so well, I really am trying to understand why they are attempting to do this,” Selden said. “The airport seems to be running very, very smoothly, efficiently, and our customers—including Delta and our airline partners, who have signed leases here for almost 20 years to keep us here—seem to be satisfied because we are so good with the team that we have here at Hartsfield-Jackson to manage this airport.
“We have 1200 airport professionals who work here from the City of Atlanta and you’re potentially complicating matters by possibly having to refinance bonds,” he added. Then there’s a change of leadership and change of process to consider. All of these things have worked so well for so long.”
Selden said that a plot to gain control over the economic engine of this region could be the motivation behind this legislation.
“But (Hartsfield-Jackson) is a well-running machine that creates tremendous income, wealth, jobs, stability, and also travel for the citizens of Atlanta and for everyone else in the state of Georgia that wants to fly to one of our 150 domestic cities and 76 international destinations.
Selden, who was appointed general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson last fall after Bottoms hired former general manager Roosevelt Council as the City of Atlanta’s chief financial officer, comes to Atlanta from New York City where he most recently served as the deputy general manager of John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) since 2014.
In that role, Selden oversaw customer service, rail access, security, maintenance, finance, commercial development, and physical infrastructure, according to his biography posted on the Hartsfield-Jackson’s website.
JFK is currently the busiest international air passenger gateway into North America, the 22nd-busiest airport in the world, the sixth-busiest airport in the United States, and the busiest airport in the New York airport system, according to a fact sheet from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. More than 90 airlines operate from the airport, with nonstop or direct flights to destinations in all six inhabited continents.
Unlike Hartsfield-Jackson, JFK operates under the control of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which leased the airport from the City of New York in 1947 and maintains the lease today.
“(At JFK), politicians make political appointees to oversee an incredibly complex operation in New York and an incredibly complex operation in New Jersey and, respectively, an incredibly complex operation in Atlanta also,” Selden explained. “What I have seen so far, in terms of differences, is that (Bottoms) has given me the opportunity of a lifetime to lead this airport, which is really the envy of all other airport directors around the world.”
“It’s just an amazing, precise, complex operation here that I have been so privileged to lead going forward by the Mayor,” he added.
Following Tuesday’s Senate committee vote, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the effort is “nothing short, in my opinion, of an attempted theft from the people of Atlanta and the city of Atlanta.”
Leaders from both the City of Atlanta and Delta Air Lines—the airport’s largest airline—have vocally opposed the takeover discussions.
“For years, Hartsfield-Jackson International has been lauded as the world’s busiest, most efficient airport and there is not an iota of evidence the State could improve upon or even maintain that stature,” a spokesperson from the Mayor’s office said. “There has yet to be a single reasonable argument posed to justify any State takeover, or 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.”
At the Atlanta City Council meeting on Monday, Councilmember Andre Dickens introduced a resolution unanimously signed by the council that opposes any state action that changes the existing governance structure of the world’s busiest airport.
“The citizens of Georgia support local control over state regulation,” Dickens said. “The City of Atlanta and airport are excelling in terms of economic growth and opportunity for the region. We don’t need an extra layer of oversight.”
“A takeover would inject instability and uncertainty around an important local, regional, and national asset, threatening the long-running stability and track record of success at the airport,” he added.
Three of metro Atlanta’s largest community groups—Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP and the Urban League of Greater Atlanta—share Dickens’ and others sentiments and have joined the conversation with their opposition to a state takeover.
In a letter to Georgia Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan and the Georgia State Senate, the groups said the proposed legislation would “(undermine) the talented and diverse workforce that has labored for decades to create an incomparable facility whose standards of excellence are known around the world.”
The letter goes on to tout the success of the airport, including its rankings as “the world’s busiest airport for the last 20 years and the most efficient airport for 15 consecutive years.”
Closing with a statement of opposition, the letter lamented that a takeover from the state would be “counterproductive” and could “stall the engine of our prosperity and burden our most formidable asset with the unnecessary complications of an unclear future.”
Bracing for a fight if the legislation passes through the Senate on Thursday, Bottoms said, “The (City of Atlanta) is prepared to explore all legal options to prevent the Senate majority’s attempted act of larceny.”