As Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms searches for a new manager for Hartsfield-Jackson International, she faces unique challenges in selling the world’s busiest airport as great place to work: an ever-widening bribery scandal at City Hall and a revolving door for airport brass.
It’s a high-profile position with international visibility, yet comes with the added challenge of leading an airport while a federal investigation into corruption has reached into Hartsfield-Jackson contracts.
Also, the position has seen significant turnover — five permanent or interim managers since early 2010; it pays less than some similar positions in the country; and the pool of experienced airport managers is shrinking fast.
“Atlanta has historically been a very politically-sensitive position,” said Doug Kuelpman, CEO of ADK Consulting & Executive Search, which handles talent searches for smaller airports. “People get the opportunity to leave when a new administration comes in, it seems.”
Soon after Bottoms took office in January, she announced she was launching a search for a general manager — signaling to the current head of Hartsfield-Jackson, Roosevelt Council, that he may not be in the position for long. He has said he has been “heavily contemplating” the job.
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Then, in April, Bottoms told Council and other members of her cabinet to submit their resignations, and said she would later decide which resignations she would accept.
Since then, Bottoms accepted the resignations of her chief financial officer and communications director, announced several other cabinet members were leaving their positions and said she would replace the city attorney and the Atlanta Housing Authority CEO.
Council has remained on the job and Bottoms has said she expects a slate of finalists for the airport manager search in June.
Some of the biggest airport contracts for construction and restaurants were the subject of a federal subpoena from a grand jury investigating corruption at City Hall. That includes a contract for airport construction management worth $12 million annually and concessions contracts that have been stalled for years amid political scuffles and the bribery scandal.
Also, the new manager will oversee a $6 billion airport expansion and modernization program that follows an audit which found the city’s contracting processes triggered “red flags” that indicate an elevated risk of fraud.
And the city’s former procurement chief, who managed contracting for the airport and other city departments, was sentenced to prison earlier this year after admitting to taking at least $44,000 in bribes from a city vendor in exchange for helping the vendor win contracts.
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Earlier this year, Hartsfield-Jackson deputy manager Cortez Carter was fired after revelations of a conflict of interest involving his wife and a concessionaire that operates restaurants at the airport.
He alleged that before he was hired, he met with then-Mayor Kasim Reed’s brother and the concessionaire’s owners, according to an investigation by Atlanta’s ethics officer. According to Carter’s attorney, he felt the mayor’s brother was “acting as surrogate” for the mayor considering him for the job.
“That’s the stuff that doesn’t help” when it comes to attracting an airport manager, Kuelpman said. “People are saying, ‘That’s Atlanta,’ and they’re not saying that in a positive way.”
The position of airport manager comes with a history of significant upheaval.
From 2010 to now, there have been four airport managers and three stints when the airport was led by an interim manager.
The highest profile departure of an airport manager was the 2016 firing of Miguel Southwell, who subsequently had his attorney send a fiery letter to Reed citing the “airport’s long and difficult history of patronage-based awards,” and seeking documents showing the mayor or the “second floor” wanted a contract to be awarded to a particular team.
That team included a company whose offices have since been raided by the FBI.
And, the job comes with a salary that others in the industry say is well below the pay offered by other airports.
Council took the general manager position in 2016 with a base salary of $221,000, the same level the position has paid since 2010. Meanwhile, Dallas-Fort Worth’s airport CEO gets a base salary of $496,186, and got a $171,285 bonus last year.
Airports run by an airport authority with a board of directors tend to pay higher salaries than airports run by a city, according to Kuelpman. At Hartsfield-Jackson, “you have a lot of headaches, you have a lot of politics, and you don’t get paid for the struggle,” he said.
A talent squeeze as some of the most experienced airport managers retire also makes it more difficult to attract someone to Atlanta, industry observers say.
“You need someone who is politically astute to navigate those waters…. If you’re a major leaguer you understand that sort of intensity is part of the job,” said Mario Rodriguez, who is executive director of the Indianapolis Airport Authority. “The pool [of top airport managers] is becoming smaller and smaller, and even worse, the pool of diverse candidates is almost non-existent.”
It’s also possible that the city might look inward to fill the position.
Aside from Council, whose background is in finance, the top leadership at the airport includes airport deputy general manager Balram “B” Bheodari, who has a long history in airport operations. He joined Hartsfield-Jackson in 1999, left in 2015 to lead Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and returned to the Atlanta airport the following year. Other executives at Hartsfield-Jackson also have significant experience with the city or at the airport.
“Running the busiest airport on the planet…. You’re talking about something that is a huge responsibility,” Rodriguez said. “There’s so much at stake.”
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