Atlanta's airport choice still on hold; one finalist out

One of three finalists to be the next Atlanta airport chief withdrew his candidacy on Friday, but there was still no word from city hall on which of the other two Mayor Kasim Reed has chosen.

Reed plans to announce his pick for general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson International shortly, probably early next week, spokeswoman Sonji Dade said. The mayor earlier this week said he had made his choice and was working out “details” before making it public.

John D. Clark III, executive director and chief executive of the Indianapolis Airport Authority, dropped out Friday, saying he had informed the Indianapolis mayor and airport authority board, along with Reed, that he will stay in Indianapolis.

The two remaining finalists include Lester Robinson, former manager of Detroit’s airport and a well-respected executive in the industry. Robinson left the airport, which is a hub for Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, in June after the airport authority praised his accomplishments but declined to renew his contract.

Robinson is also a finalist for the position of airport CEO in Tampa, where the airport board plans to complete interviews this month and select a final candidate at an Oct. 7 meeting.

Louis Miller, who resigned from the Tampa airport earlier this year, is the other remaining finalist for the Hartsfield-Jackson post. Tampa’s airport is known for its efficiency, and Miller oversaw significant construction there. But he was involved in some disputes with an aviation authority board member and other opponents, and was criticized for his handling of zoning requirements and other rules.

Miller, reached Friday, said he is still a candidate as far as he knows and that he was unaware of Clark’s decision. Robinson has not returned calls.

Dade said Clark’s withdrawal will not affect the timing of the mayor’s announcement on a new general manager.

Clark wrote in an e-mail message to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his decision was “based on a personal assessment of family, the support I have received from the community of Indianapolis and a commitment to complete what I have started here. After much thought and some counsel from some long time friends and mentors I determined this was the best decision.”

“I have every confidence that Mayor Reed will hire the best person for the position and that person will do great things for the airport and the Atlanta community. In my introduction to Mayor Reed I found him very visionary and focused in what he wants to accomplish,” he wrote.

Clark’s decision followed recent reports in Indianapolis and then Atlanta, recounting an arrest for speeding at as much as 135 miles per hour in Florida in February after the Super Bowl. Clark said the reports didn’t factor into his decision, adding that he has lived with media coverage for much of his professional life.

Atlanta’s search for a new top executive at city-owned Hartsfield-Jackson dates to last winter , when Ben DeCosta announced he would retire after 12 years in the post when his contract expired in June. The mayor -- who did not offer to extend DeCosta’s contract -- initially said he expected to name a replacement before DeCosta left on June 30. Instead, assistant general manager Robert Kennedy was named interim general manager.

Airport spokesman John Kennedy said work at the airport is “plowing ahead.”

“I don’t think we’re holding on anything,” Kennedy said.

Although Hartsfield-Jackson is the world’s busiest airport, the search did not produce finalists from the top 10 busiest U.S. airports.

Recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles conducted the search in conjunction with a selection committee headed by Home Depot finance chief Carol Tomé. The firm did a “global sweep of major airports” and identified No. 1 and No. 2 managers at the top 20 North American airports and top 10 cargo airports, as well as some others, said Neil Collins, who led the project for the recruiting firm. He said the firm talked to about 75 people.

The Hartsfield-Jackson job may appeal more to executives from second-tier airports because it offers a bigger career advancement opportunity, said Dan Petree, professor and dean of the college of business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

Managers at large airports such as those in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles already have positions that may be “a very challenging, very fulfilling, very rewarding and worthwhile job,” Petree said.

“Unless there were some peculiar set of circumstances, like they were from the South or something, what would cause them to want to do essentially the same job someplace else, given that there’s probably not going to be that much difference in compensation?” Top managers in some cities are also managing multiple large commercial airports, while Atlanta has one commercial airport.

Even though they handle far fewer passengers than Hartsfield-Jackson, the airports in Detroit and Tampa, as well as Indianapolis, have “done major things,” said Bill Fife, a consultant and former airport manager, shortly after the finalists were named.

“They’re all viewed as really great airports in the country,” he said. “Any one of these airport folks have been leaders in the aviation business.”

The fundamental skills of managing a commercial airport of any size are similar, though the scope and range of responsibilities would be broader at Hartsfield-Jackson, Petree said.

“You need to be sure that the intellectual capital of the person that you choose to lead the airport is ... able to ramp itself up to the challenge,” he said.

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