Why Atlanta’s airport is facing a state takeover bid

The Georgia Senate is set to vote Thursday on a measure that would give the state control of Atlanta’s airport, a move that Atlanta’s mayor said is tantamount to declaring war on the city.

The bill’s Republican supporters say the switch is needed to protect the state’s economic engine from corruption and mismanagement, and the indictment Wednesday of a longtime Atlanta contractor on bribery charges added fuel to the fire.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and city officials say the airport has become the world’s busiest, and one of the most efficient, under Atlanta’s oversight. And they say any takeover attempt will breed fiscal instability and a wave of litigation.

» More: Indictment could bolster state bid to take over Atlanta airport

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Here’s a closer look at the dynamics fueling the debate:

Why the state wants control of the airport

The state’s push for control of Atlanta’s airport has simmered for decades, with supporters often sounding the refrain that the crown jewel of the region’s economy needs more oversight.

By federal statute, Atlanta airport funds must be used only for airport expenses and cannot be funneled to other parts of government like education or roads or to make up funding shortfalls in other parts of government.

But control of the world’s busiest airport translates into major political influence and ties to business.

For one, an airport authority would likely quickly become one of the state's most influential boards - and a chance for powerful politicians to dole out sought-after appointments.

Why the airport takeover bill is advancing now

The momentum behind the measure is a sign of how vastly city-state relations have changed since Gov. Brian Kemp took office.

His predecessor, Gov. Nathan Deal, enjoyed a famously close relationship with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and his preferred successor – Keisha Lance Bottoms – worked to stoke those warm ties.

When a similar measure surfaced last year, Deal joined with Democrats to ground it before it could lift off. His administration circulated a two-page memo that warned of the fiscal and legislative difficulties of creating a state oversight board.

That memo warned that uncertainty and instability from the changes could “cast a negative perception” that could hamper credit ratings. And it heaped praise on the airport, which earned an upgraded bond rating in November 2016 because of new long-term contracts from vendors.

Kemp hasn’t publicly said whether he supports the bill, and he steered clear of the issue during his campaign for governor, even while Republican rivals said that a state takeover could stave off corruption and clear the way for a second airport.

His allies privately suggest he won’t support the measure, in part because he doesn’t want to inflame city-state relations and in part because he wants to give Bottoms time to resolve the problems on her own.

Still, airport backers say he’s given City Hall little indication that he would oppose it. Opponents worry about lingering damage from the heated exchanges between the two on the campaign trail. And his silence, compared to Deal’s outspoken opposition, may have paved the way for its progress this year.

Potential pitfalls

City and airport officials argue there are a number of barriers that could block a state takeover - starting with federal regulations.

The Federal Aviation Administration will not allow a takeover of an airport without the current operator’s consent, unless there is a final judicial decision requiring the change or other resolution of the dispute. That policy was set after North Carolina in 2013 tried to take over the Charlotte airport.

After years of litigation, the FAA set a policy restricting hostile takeovers of airports. And today, the city of Charlotte still owns and operates Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

Other problems include language in bond documents that could leave to a wave of legal problems. And a lease with Delta Air Lines, which also opposes the takeover, could block a changeover of control of the airport.

Why Atlanta wants to maintain control of the airport

Hartsfield-Jackson officials argue that they run the most efficient airport in the world, as determined by Air Transport Research Society studies, and that tinkering with the governance and control of the airport could damage the operation.

City officials also say the city has invested in the airport for decades and is an asset with value. Bottoms called it an “attempted theft of the Atlanta airport.”

Elected officials in the city of Atlanta, of course, also benefit from campaign contributions from airport contractors.

It’s also a matter of civic pride to City Hall. The takeover of the airport could “drastically affect” the city’s psyche, said Georgia Persons, a Georgia Tech public policy professor.

“It would be seen nationally as a kind of takedown of the city of Atlanta,” she said. “It’s not just that it wouldn’t be good for the city of Atlanta. It really would not be good for the state of Georgia.”

Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden, who stepped into the role at the helm of the Atlanta airport last year, is quick to point out that authorities are not immune to political influence.

Case in point: A former chairman of the Port of Authority of New York pleaded guilty in 2016 to a federal investigation into whether he used his office for personal gain.

The uncertainty amid the state’s attempt to take over the airport “creates disturbance for the business environment,” Selden said. “It will cause destruction to our financial disposition and willingness to invest in the airport, and it will affect our employees.”

What passengers could notice

Some significant links to the city of Atlanta are also visible at the airport — and it’s possible those operations could change if the city no longer managed the airport.

The Atlanta Police Department has a precinct in the domestic terminal, and the city’s police officers patrol the airport and respond to incidents. The Atlanta Fire Rescue Department operates five fire stations at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Contracting for the airport is run by the city of Atlanta’s Department of Procurement —and that would change with a shift in airport control to the state. The Georgia Ports Authority, for example, has its own purchasing department.

Airport minority contracting requirements for many contracts at airports like Hartsfield-Jackson that receive federal grants are governed by federal Disadvantaged Business Enterprise programs.