Photo: Bob Andres / AJC
Photo: Bob Andres / AJC

Paulding airport boxed in by Atlanta

Even if Paulding County succeeds in drawing airline service to its rural, one-runway airport, the chances that the airport could grow to rival the Atlanta airport are slim.

One big reason: Paulding’s airport is surrounded by land owned by the city of Atlanta, which has already said it opposes the Paulding airport’s plans.

That essentially could give Atlanta the ability to block future expansion of Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport.

For now, the commercialization plans for Paulding’s airport have been delayed pending an environmental assessment that will likely take months.

Other factors could limit operations — including the Paulding airport’s remote location, and the fact that no airline so far has announced plans to start flights there.

However the project plays out, the city of Atlanta’s adjacent land ownership adds an odd backdrop.

The city-owned land “pretty much wraps around” the airport on multiple sides, with Highway 278 also running parallel to the airport.

“It borders us on a good 60 percent of the airport,” Paulding airport director Blake Swafford said. That, along with hilly terrain, would make any major expansion difficult, he said.

Ironically, the city owns the land because Atlanta officials once saw Paulding as potentially the perfect place for a second, “reliever” airport for Hartsfield-Jackson International — an idea they now reject.

The city in the early 1970s bought 10,165 acres in Paulding at $925 an acre, along with a similar tract of land in Dawson Forest farther north.

In 2007, as the current Paulding airport was being built, officials planning the general aviation airfield asked to buy 163 acres back from the city of Atlanta for $815,000 to complete their runway and a buffer zone.

The Atlanta City Council approved the sale.

Ben DeCosta, then the general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson, said the deal was intended to help economic development in Paulding, while a top Paulding official praised it as “another example of the leadership that Atlanta has demonstrated over the years for our region.”

That cooperative tone changed when Paulding last fall reversed its position and decided to commercialize the airport with the help of a partner, Propeller Investments, that had already failed in a similar attempt at Gwinnett County’s Briscoe Field.

The Paulding project, hashed out over months with little public knowledge, met immediate blowback from both the city and Delta Air Lines, Hartsfield-Jackson’s largest tenant.

Delta chief executive Richard Anderson said he was “adamantly opposed” to funding for an airport in the region other than Hartsfield-Jackson, adding that it was a “waste of resources.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed issued a statement saying he and the city “will not support Propeller Investment’s efforts to add commercial air service.”

Both Delta and the city view a second airport as a foot in the door that could lead eventually to a rival to Hartsfield-Jackson, the city’s crown jewel for economic development and the citadel hub of Delta’s route system.

Paulding officials say the concern is misplaced because they never envision a very big airline operation, just one that would offer limited flights to leisure destinations.

“Our little airport is not a threat,” Propeller Investments chief Brett Smith said. And, “we couldn’t even grow if we wanted to, because the city could block it.”

Reed spokeswoman Anne Torres declined to comment on whether the city would ever sell land back to Paulding for an airport expansion, while noting the mayor’s position has not changed.

Paulding commission chairman David Austin said he has “no ambition of buying any more” land from the city of Atlanta, “but you know, who knows what future generations would need … I think right now we have plenty of land to be as successful as we can become with what we’ve got.”

It could take much more than land to put Paulding’s airport on the map in a big way.

The airport sits about 35 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta, with no direct interstate access or transit service, and little of the surrounding development that fliers usually expect.

In 2011, a Federal Aviation Administration-funded study of potential second airport sites said the Paulding site would be “challenged” because of its remote location. A full-fledged second airport for Atlanta was determined to be unfeasible in Paulding or in any other location studied.

The type of second airport envisioned in the study was one with a 1,400-acre footprint and a 9,000 foot runway. In Paulding County, the study said, that would cost some $2.8 billion.

Currently, Paulding Northwest sits on 750 acres and has one 6,000-foot runway. Airport planners say they want to start with just a couple of flights a week, with the idea that Allegiant Airlines could launch service to Orlando.

According to a presentation by Propeller Investments, similar-sized airports could get about six flights a day in the second year of service, 13 flights a day in the fifth year of service and 26 flights a day in the 10th year of service. That could eventually equal about 1 million passengers a year — about 1 percent of Hartsfield-Jackson’s 94.4 million passengers last year, including those just connecting.

“We don’t foresee ourselves as a hub … and the population I don’t think would support this being a hub,” Swafford said. “We think this is going to be more like a leisure-type airport … It’s not going to really relieve the traffic issue at Hartsfield.”

In the past, the idea of a second airport was sometimes linked to the hope that it would draw Southwest Airlines. But now Southwest is here — at Hartsfield-Jackson, where it is absorbing merger partner AirTran Airways.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly says developing a new commercial airport is “a long shot” but added the decision is “not up to the airline, it’s up to the community.”

“We’re famous for serving multiple airports [in an area],” Kelly said. “If invited to look at an opportunity as to whether or not we would serve it, we would be happy to do that and at least express an opinion on what we would see as the viability. But we’re not going to expend any effort until it’s obvious to us that there’s the political and the community will to make that happen.”

Kelly emphasized that Southwest is not interested in leaving Hartsfield-Jackson. In Atlanta, he said, “I think we have a very good airport.”

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