4 airport concessions firms could lose special status

The long-running controversy surrounding concessions contracts at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport heightened Thursday when the federal government directed the state to begin the process of removing key disadvantaged business certifications from four companies that won contracts for restaurants at the airport.

Those certifications gave those concessionaires special consideration, since the airport had a goal of awarding 36 percent of the contracts to disadvantaged firms, based on contract value.

In memos Thursday to the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration told GDOT to start proceedings to remove the airport concessions disadvantaged business certifications of Hojeij Branded Foods, Atlanta Restaurant Partners, Mack II and Vida Concessions.

Together, those companies won a significant share of the concessions contracts worth about $3 billion over 10 years. They were selected to operate dozens of new restaurants at the airport and are in eight of nine new airport restaurant contracts.

Sonji Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, said in a written statement that the start of GDOT administrative proceedings "has no effect on the concessions contracts or the city's ACDBE goals."

The city said it "has fully cooperated" with GDOT and the FAA and will continue to do so. Jacobs wrote that the city "remains committed" to complying with the airport concessions disadvantaged business goal.

GDOT, rather than the city, certifies firms as disadvantaged businesses. The city has said it does not have the authority to certify or independently assess the certification.

In the case of Mack II and Hojeij Branded Foods, the FAA wrote that records on file with GDOT "lack sufficient evidence" showing that the firm's owner was below the $750,000 personal net worth cap in effect at the time of the initial certification decision. Hojeij Branded Foods won one of the five largest restaurant contracts at the Atlanta airport. Atlanta Restaurant Partners won one of the four small restaurant contracts.

In the case of Atlanta Restaurant Partners and Vida Concessions, the FAA called into question the control of the firms by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.

There is an appeals process.

In a written statement, Atlanta Restaurant Partners head Daniel Halpern said: "While I have not yet seen the letter from the FAA, it is my understanding that Atlanta Restaurant Partners will have the opportunity to present evidence of our continued eligibility for the ACDBE program. We are confident that we will be able to demonstrate that we are and remain eligible to participate as a duly certified minority business enterprise."

The FAA sent the memos after GDOT last week sent a letter to the FAA saying it "did not find any information that would change the status" of the airport concessions disadvantaged businesses and was closing its review on the matter. GDOT has 60 days to complete the certification removal process.