Atlanta city councilman weighs lifting airport concessions price cap

Multiple restaurants line Concourse B at Hartsfield-Jackson. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Multiple restaurants line Concourse B at Hartsfield-Jackson. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Travelers facing already higher than average prices at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport restaurants and shops could be looking at an increase, if an Atlanta city councilman's idea becomes a reality.

The chairman of the committee overseeing the airport and its contracts wants to consider raising the maximum 10% premium over average street prices vendors are allowed to charge to 25% so vendors can pay workers $15 an hour.

"If [concessionaires] could get more money, they could pay more money," said Councilman Andre Dickens, who chairs the council's transportation committee.

But such a plan to increase airport premiums faces challenges, including a state law that preempts the city from setting a minimum wage higher than the federal standard. City officials are also focused on fending off an attempt by some state legislators to wrest airport control from the city.

Dickens said it could be a year or more before changes to the price cap move forward, in tandem with higher concessionaire pay.

“It’s not an easy fix,” Dickens said. “We want to be sensitive to what the state law is.”

The premiums were allowed to help vendors cover the extra cost of operating at the airport, including complying with security restrictions , environmental rules and delivery of supplies. The airport reviews whether the price of something like a Burger King Whopper is permitted by having a contractor record prices at as many as six retailers on the street for comparison.

While Atlantans who pass through Hartsfield-Jackson daily are subject to the prices charged by concessionaires, Dickens pointed to the fact that travelers who don't live in Atlanta make up the majority of passengers.

“This won’t affect the Atlantans as much as it will affect the travelers. And travelers tend to have disposable income, business income, et cetera.,” Dickens said.

The city of Atlanta raised its minimum wage paid to city employees to $15 an hour last year. But airport concession employees work for private companies that lease space at the airport and are not subject to the city employee minimum wage.

Unions have been working for years to boost minimum wages through what they call the ‘Fight for $15.’

Some city council members are trying to find another way to require or incentivize airport concessionaires to pay more. But it’s unclear if there’s a legal path to do so under state law, Dickens said.

He said he’s not sure if he wants to completely remove the price cap, but said he thinks increasing it to 25% above street prices sounds like a good place to start the conversation.

While many airports have a concessions price cap, some do not or have lifted it.

Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden said other airports, including the one he previously led, New York’s John F. Kennedy International, charge higher prices — thanks in part to well-heeled international passengers who are willing to spend freely

“The market drives what the price is,” Selden said.

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