Miguel Southwell once tried to start an airline but it never got off the ground. That led him into airport management, and now he’s about to take command of the busiest one on the planet.
Southwell, a deputy general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson International, will be interim general manager after current leader Louis Miller retires in less than a month.
While it’s unclear if he will be offered the airport’s top job permanently, Southwell, 58, said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he plans to push ahead with a few key long-term priorities.
One of his first major tasks when he steps into the post in early January will be overseeing completion of the airport’s master plan, including a public workshop.
The effort involves planning for the airport through 2030, including the potential for a sixth runway and additional concourses.
“It has to meet all the community’s needs,” said Southwell. While new runways often spark concerns about noise, he said they can reduce airport noise by cutting down on airfield congestion that leads to planes spending more time taxiing.
His other big concern: how to finance that master plan. His overarching goal is to boost airport revenue through concessions, possible real estate deals and other ideas.
The airport controls a variety of empty parcels that could be leased for development — a plan that will be further fleshed out after the airport determines through the master plan what land it wants to reserve for expansion.
Meanwhile, the city and airport expect to begin lease negotiations with Hartsfield-Jackson’s largest tenant, Delta Air Lines, next year. That also could have a big effect on airport revenue.
But for Southwell, the main priority of an airport is not simply operations and budgets.
“With an airport, the main focus is to be used as a tool for economic development, for creating jobs,” Southwell said.
That includes measures already in place, like bringing more local flavor to airport restaurants to promote Georgia and the South, and playing recorded messages by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed inviting visitors who are just passing through to come back to visit the city.
Miller, who sits on the board of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, also said efforts are underway to work with airlines to sell tickets with longer layovers in Atlanta for the same price.
Another example of the idea of the airport as economic driver is the mayor’s goal of increasing air cargo, which can drive commerce and jobs for the region.
Southwell said eventual fee-waiver incentives for airlines to add international flights that could better “link Atlanta to the fastest growing economies,” such as those of Brazil, Russia, India and China.
“There are a lot of things I want to discuss with the mayor — ideas,” Southwell said.
Miller, 65, said this week he’ll retire Jan. 3. The city of Atlanta owns and operates Hartsfield-Jackson, and Reed has not yet announced whether he plans a national search for Miller’s replacement.
Meantime, the mayor has asked Southwell to work with Miller on completing the master plan before Miller departs, according to spokesman Carlos Campos. Reed will make decide how to fill Miller’s vacancy next month, Campos said.
Southwell, a native of Antigua, has spent a good part of his career at or around the Atlanta airport.
He tried to start an airline flying between Atlanta and the Caribbean, but the idea failed.
“I call it the ghost of Air Atlanta,” Southwell said, noting that people were wary of any startup airline in the wake of Air Atlanta’s failure and at a time when Eastern Airlines was on the skids.
Southwell got an internship at Hartsfield and from 1990 to 2001 worked his way up to leadership positions including interim assistant general manager of business and finance.
After leaving Atlanta in 2001, Southwell worked for 12 years as a deputy aviation director for Miami-Dade County’s airport system.
But Southwell had in mind the idea of returning to Atlanta. When the mayor searched for a successor to former airport manager Ben DeCosta in 2010, Southwell was one of the candidates considered before Miller was selected.
Then Southwell’s son, a teacher in Cobb County, told Southwell he would soon be a grandfather. “That’s a really strong incentive” to move to Atlanta, he said.
Miller hired him to be a deputy general manager for commercial development effective in June. Miller restructured the airport’s leadership to have three deputy general managers.
“Part of what I was trying to do was create succession planning,” said Miller.
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