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Delta CEO opposes idea of state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson

Delta CEO Ed Bastian (right) and Virgin founder Richard Branson held a “fireside chat” event at the GWCC where they discussed the partnership between Delta and Virgin Atlantic and their goal of transforming the customer experience. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Delta CEO Ed Bastian (right) and Virgin founder Richard Branson held a “fireside chat” event at the GWCC where they discussed the partnership between Delta and Virgin Atlantic and their goal of transforming the customer experience. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Delta CEO Ed Bastian said he opposes a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, as Georgia's legislature plans a committee to study the idea.

“Atlanta is the largest, most successful airport in the world, and anything that would harm that in terms of trying to move it for political gain between the city and state, we’re opposed,” Bastian said after a talk with Virgin Group founder Richard Branson at a Junior Achievement of Georgia event Wednesday morning. “We think the operation with the city runs quite efficiently.”

The state has floated the idea of taking over Hartsfield-Jackson a number of times over the years. A resolution passed during this year's legislative session has called for a committee to study the creation of an airport authority to run Hartsfield-Jackson.

On Wednesday afternoon, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle appointed members to the Senate Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Operations and Authority Creation study committee. The chaiman will be Burt Jones, R-Jackson, who introduced the resolution to create the committee. Other senators on the committee will be Brandon Beach, Gloria Butler, Mike Dugan, Ed Harbison, Tyler Harper, Steve Gooch, John Kennedy, David Lucas, Butch Miller, Jeff Mullis, Valencia Seay, and Freddie Powell-Sims.

Jones said in a written statement that to maximize Hartsfield-Jackson’s potential, “it’s vitally important we continue evaluating the state’s involvement and role in the airport’s operations.”

The state's move comes as a federal bribery investigation has reached into airport contracts, and after controversies involving the tumultuous 2016 firing of then-Atlanta airport general manager Miguel Southwell and the more recent firing of a deputy general manager after revelations of a potential conflict of interest.

The Atlanta airport's recent challenges also include a debilitating blackout that disrupted travel for passengers from around the world one day last December.

“No question that the issues around corruption and some of the political challenges of managing a large municipal commercial operation require further improvement,” Bastian said. “I’m not certain why the state is not going to have the same issues on that that the city has.”

Hartsfield-Jackson is being run by interim general manager Balram Bheodari, after Roosevelt Council was shifted from his role heading the airport to become chief financial officer for the city.

“We have the crown jewel in air travel right here in Hartsfield-Jackson and I think the city should take great pride in what they’ve built and we’d be opposed to any change in the governance structure,” Bastian said.

Bastian in his remarks also weighed in on political issues, including immigration.

Immigration “is an evolving issue, and we’re watching it,” he said.

Bastian acknowledged that airlines have flown some children back to their homes to reunite with families, with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security involved in buying the tickets.

“It’s very limited, it’s minor in number,” Bastian said. “The kids that have been coming back to their families flying on the airlines have actually been reuniting, not actually separating.”

His remarks came as President Donald Trump said he planned to sign a measure to address migrant family separations.

Bastian said the airline’s customers “want to know where we stand on some of the important issues of the day.”

“Within the populist movement, I think people are scared,” Bastian said. “Our business is bringing the world together…. When you see the world moving against that, it’s our call to action to jump in.”