City names Southwell as airport’s top exec

The Atlanta airport’s interim leader for the past four months has been tapped as its permanent general manager, the city announced Monday.

Miguel Southwell, 58, had been interim GM at Hartsfield-Jackson International since the retirement late last year of Louis Miller.

At $221,000 a year the job is one of the highest-paying positions on the city payroll and crucial to maintaining Hartsfield-Jackson International’s status as one of the region’s top economic engines and business lures.

Southwell will be in charge of a wide range of contracts for parking, concessions and ground transportation, as well as relations with airlines and the Transportation Security Administration. His staff also manages basic airport services and planning for new facilities.

Southwell — a one-time intern at the Atlanta airport who also worked in Miami — was one of three finalists. The others were Paul Wiedefeld, who runs Baltimore/Washington International, and Deborah Ale Flint, aviation director in Oakland, Calif.

Mayor Kasim Reed interviewed all three and made the decision, which will be submitted to city council for approval. The mayor called Southwell, who previously worked at Miami International, “the right executive to continue Hartsfield-Jackson’s dominance.”

“His experience in Miami, and prior experience in Atlanta, is the right fit to carry out my vision for our airport to be the nation’s leader in the logistics and air cargo space,” Reed said in a written statement.

Southwell, in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said he aims to boost Hartsfield-Jackson to one of the top 25 cargo airports worldwide in the next three years.

Another major task for Southwell will be to negotiate a new lease with Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and Hartsfield-Jackson’s other carriers — a process that can be contentious. He said he expects those talks to take up to 18 months and to produce a new lease lasting at least 20 years.

“We have common interests with our airlines … We as a city have an obligation to make sure we are the most competitive airport,” Southwell said. “The real purpose of an airport is to serve as any community’s main economic development tool – to drive jobs, to attract businesses to the area.”

Candidates for the position were recommended by an eight-member search committee led by Home Depot chief financial officer Carol Tomé. The mayor’s office said the search “included an exhaustive look at the top aviation executives across the top 40 airports in the nation.”

Starting as an intern, Southwell worked at the Atlanta airport through the 1990s before leaving for Miami International, where he was deputy director of business. Southwell returned to Hartsfield-Jackson last year as a member of Miller’s staff.

In 2010, while still in Miami, he was one of five finalists for the general manager position before Miller was selected.

In his four months as interim general manager, Southwell has pushed forward with long-term planning, including efforts to complete Hartsfield-Jackson’s master plan through 2030.

Completion of the plan has been delayed until this summer, in part due to Southwest Airlines’ flight cuts as it folds AirTran Airways operations into its own. The merger has altered airport forecasts.

Reed said the master plan work will determine whether the next major project for the airport is a sixth runway or an additional terminal.

Southwell has started the process for the airport’s first incentive program to attract international flights, launched efforts to study the idea of an airport terminal hotel, joined the mayor on a trade mission to Brazil and launched an effort to address issues raised by ground transportation operators.

Wiedefeld brought experience as both CEO of BWI Airport and as a past administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration, and he has also been director of aviation consulting for transportation engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Ale Flint was praised for having experience running both an airport and a seaport, and she is also on the federal Aviation Consumer Protection committee.

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