Delta lease OK’d, but emotions steal show at city hall

Reed, Anderson fight tears at signing ceremony for new airport deal

It was an airport lease-signing ceremony, but it turned into something more Wednesday for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and departing Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson.

Both found themselves reflecting on deeper issues than the lease — and fighting back tears — as they inked a 20-year deal that renews the terms of Delta’s massive operation at the city-owned Atlanta airport.

Reed, who has been close to Anderson throughout his term as mayor, recalled that when he was new to the office, “Whenever I needed to call on somebody for advice, Delta’s support or something that was important to the city of Atlanta, Richard Anderson always took my call.”

“Richard Anderson has been one of the most consequential leaders in the life of the City of Atlanta,” Reed continued, his voice breaking. “When history catches its breath, his name will be right among folks like Mills Lane, Robert Woodruff, Robert Goizueta, Ted Turner and others.”

Anderson, after dabbing his eyes on the lapel of his cream-colored suit jacket, joked: “If I had the power to do one thing today, I think I’d name the airport the Hartsfield-Jackson-Reed” International Airport.

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Anderson officially retires next week after nine years as Delta’s CEO, though he’s already turned over the post to successor Ed Bastian, his longtime No. 2.

The new airport lease is hugely important to both the airline and the city. It sets new operating rents and fees that will underwrite financing for a wave of upgrades and expansions planned, including new parking decks, remodeled terminals and a new international gate concourse.

The deal flew through an Atlanta City Council hearing with little questioning and no opposition, in a process timed to get the deal signed before Anderson’s May 2 retirement date.

The deal keeps the per-passenger costs for Delta roughly flat over the lease’s 20-year term. The agreement, the longest-term lease struck since 1980, includes an option for a 10-year extension.

Negotiations took a year at the staff level. Reed said when the last details of the lease had to be hammered out, “Richard and I had a sandwich in his office and we ended up coming to an agreement.”

With the lease, “We have now laid the groundwork for the next 30 years,” Anderson said. “It takes real vision to stand here today in 2016 and have a mayor that has a vision of what this airport needs to be in 2030…. There’s not very many mayors that have that kind of forceful leadership.”

In addition to cost provisions, the deal includes a covenant to keep Delta’s headquarters in Atlanta. The city pledges not to operate any second commercial airport in the region, an idea Delta has long opposed.

Anderson said Delta is not considering moving its headquarters but added the deal “is multi-generational … And so the ground rules need to be clearly laid out.”

Anderson’s tenure started shortly after the airline emerged from bankruptcy. Since then the airline, expanded through a merger with Northwest Airlines, has been on a run of record profits. Anderson is considered a thought-leader in the industry, but also something of a maverick for his sometimes unconventional moves or positions.

“I think it’s fair to characterize the last nine years at Delta as one of the most remarkable transformations of any organization in the history of corporations in America … It’s really a tribute to the people” of Delta, he said.

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