Hartsfield-Jackson to strike agreement with airport chaplaincy

The domestic terminal atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The domestic terminal atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is seeking Atlanta City Council approval for a memorandum of understanding with the nonprofit that runs its airport chapels to avoid running afoul of federal rules prohibiting the diversion of airport revenue.

That’s because the airport has not had a formal agreement with Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy Inc. for the past couple of years, and it could be considered revenue diversion under Federal Aviation Administration policy if the airport allows use of the space rent-free.

At no cost, Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy staff and volunteers run three interfaith chapels at the world's busiest airport: one on an upper level of the domestic terminal atrium, one on Concourse E, and one on Concourse F. Airport chaplains provide counseling, military honor guards and assistance to travelers.

Since the first airport chapel was built in 1981, there have been various agreements, including a commercial lease, occupancy permits “and most recently no agreement at all,” according to documents submitted to the City Council for approval of the five-year memorandum of understanding.

The FAA last year began a revenue diversion investigation of Hartsfield-Jackson on another matter — legal fees associated with a federal corruption investigation at Atlanta City Hall. The investigation is ongoing, the FAA says.

But before that investigation began, the city’s counsel for aviation in 2015 determined that community service organizations such as the airport chaplaincy, the USO, Travelers Aid, HOPE Atlanta and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau “could all be considered revenue diversion under (FAA) guidance if the city provided space to them below market rate,” according to City Council documents.

The FAA says its policy allows use of airport funds to support community activities or community organizations if the expenditures directly relate to operation of the airport, as the interfaith airport chapel and some other organizations do by assisting passengers.

“Where the amount of the contribution such as free rent is minimal and in writing, the FAA would not question the benefit of free rent” if there is a connection with the airport, according to the agency.

Hartsfield-Jackson deputy general manager Michael Smith said the airport has memorandums of understanding in place for all of the other community organizations, and with the airport chaplaincy, “it was a matter of getting around to it.”

The City Council transportation committee voted in favor of the deal, which next goes to the full council for approval.