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Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Legislation for state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson faces tough fight

Senate Bill 131 — introduced by state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, and co-sponsored by fellow Republicans Tyler Harper, Brandon Beach, Matt Brass, Jeff Mullis and Mike Dugan — would create the Georgia Major Airport Authority. It follows a series of study committee meetings on the matter chaired by Jones last year, which included scrutiny of the management of the airport by the city of Atlanta.

Amid a federal investigation into Atlanta City Hall and after lawsuits over the years alleging steering of airport contracts, Jones has said he believes the Atlanta airport should be run by an entity an arm’s length away from politics.

Sen. Burt Jones confers with colleagues on the floor. 
Photo: BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

The bill as written says the construction and operation of major airports “significantly affect the public welfare of the state” and that “the public welfare of this state is best served by having an authority over such activities for major airports for such purposes as provided by this chapter.”

Hartsfield-Jackson is the only major airport hub in Georgia. But Jones has said a state authority would enable full vetting of the idea of a second commercial airport to serve the region.

A spokesman for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a statement Wednesday saying: “For years, Hartsfield-Jackson International has been lauded as the world’s busiest, most efficient airport, and there is not an iota of evidence the State could improve upon or even maintain that stature. There has yet to be a single reasonable argument posed to justify any State takeover, or theft of the airport from the people of Atlanta who have worked for decades to make it the economic engine that it is for the state, region, country and world.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. 
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Atlanta officials have also contended that terms of airport bonds would be a barrier to a state takeover of the airport.

As written, Jones’ bill would create a state authority whose members would include the governor or governor’s designee, the lieutenant governor or a designee, the speaker of the house or a designee, the transportation commissioner, the public safety commissioner and four people with experience in business, aviation, law or accounting appointed by the House speaker and the Senate president. The appointees would serve terms of up to six years.

Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden said the bill as written would give the state “total control of the airport.” And an authority of political appointees “can be problematic,” he said, “in that political pressures can put stress on the facility.”

“This is a complex operation,” Selden said. If the airport manager reported to an authority board, Selden said he believes it would be less efficient than reporting to a single person — the mayor.

Gov. Brian Kemp, during remarks Wednesday, said he is continuing to listen to all sides. “There’s some for it, there’s some against it. We’re just continuing to gather information.”

Delta CEO Ed Bastian.
Photo: BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Delta CEO Ed Bastian said last week in response to a question about a potential state takeover: “We don’t support that.”

At a company profit sharing day event Feb. 14, Bastian said the city of Atlanta “manages (the airport) quite effectively. Improvements can be made, and I know Mayor Bottoms is working on that. But changing the governance structure I don’t think is the answer. I think it would disrupt the progress that’s being made over there. … We’d rather work with the governing structure we currently have.”

The airline, which also has a potential permanent jet fuel tax break at stake in the Legislature this session, issued a less-pointed written statement Wednesday saying it “has long supported Hartsfield-Jackson as the No. 1 economic and job creation engine for metro Atlanta as well as the state of Georgia. It has more flights and destinations than any other major U.S. airport, bringing an estimated $58 billion annually in total economic benefits to the region and supporting tens of thousands of jobs statewide.”

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