Paulding airport says lease still calls for commercialization effort

A plane sits at Paulding County Airport in Dallas. Credit Hyosub Shin HSHIN@AJC.COM

A plane sits at Paulding County Airport in Dallas. Credit Hyosub Shin HSHIN@AJC.COM

Paulding County’s airport may try again to commercialize and attract airline flights, after its last effort was brought to an end by the Federal Aviation Administration.

That’s because a long-term lease with an airport partner could obligate it to do so, according to the Paulding airport director. That company, Silver Comet Terminal Partners, has indicated continued interest in commercializing Paulding’s airport.

Lawsuits and opposition from Paulding residents, Delta Air Lines, county commissioners and others to the creation of a second commercial airport in metro Atlanta tied up the commercialization process in litigation for the last four-and-a-half years. The FAA last month said it was closing its file on Paulding's application for commercial certification and an accompanying environmental assessment, after the process had stalled.

But Tibbitts noted that a 20-year lease between the Paulding County Airport Authority and Silver Comet Terminal Partners specifies that the airport authority must “use its best efforts” to get commercial certification.

First, Paulding Airport director Tibbitts said Silver Comet will need to provide another airline letter of intent to start service in Paulding County, similar to one secured from Allegiant Air in 2013.

But Allegiant Air may no longer be interested. “At this time, we’re not pursuing service at the Paulding County airport,” Allegiant said in a written statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week.

And the issue may also hinge on the results of Paulding County commissioner elections, with key runoffs next week. That’s because the county is a co-sponsor of the airport.

If the commission remains majority anti-commercialization, it may keep the airport authority from being able to re-apply for commercial certification.

“We would have to have the support of the Paulding County board of commissioners,” Tibbitts said. “The airport authority would have an obligation to try to persuade the board of commissioners to approve it…. There have been all kinds of instances in the past where politicians have changed their opinions on topics.”

If the majority shifts to pro-commercialization, that could clear some of the legal hurdles.

Airport commercialization is “a very divisive issue in Paulding County,” Tibbitts acknowledged. But, he added: “We are not going to violate the terms of a contract because of public opinion. That’s not how it works in a court of law.”

The lease was struck by Tibbitts’ predecessor, Blake Swafford, and Silver Comet’s Brett Smith.

“We continue to be contractually obligated” to Silver Comet, Tibbitts said. But, “I think the FAA will remain consistent in saying they will never approve a [commercialization] application at Paulding County airport until the litigation is resolved. So I think that process will continue on indefinitely.”

Tibbitts said he disagreed with the FAA’s decision to close the file, but “the only apparent course of action for us would be to refile the [FAA] application again,” if Silver Comet directs the airport authority to do so.

Silver Comet continues to express interest.

Late last month, an attorney representing the airport authority sent a letter with advanced notice of pending termination of the Silver Comet lease effective Dec. 1, 2018 because there is no commercial airline service at the Paulding airport and Silver Comet had not exercised an option to lease the entire Paulding airport terminal building. Smith sent a letter the next day to lease the building — keeping the contract and the airport’s obligation in tact.

“Silver Comet is confident that the Paulding County Airport Authority will honor and abide by paragraph 9 of our agreement; specifically, to “use its best efforts to obtain” commercial certification,” Smith wrote. “We remain ready, willing and able to assist you in whatever way we can.”

Tibbitts said he wants Silver Comet to find an airline with planes that can land and take off using the airport’s existing runway, instead of requiring a more extensive environmental review to lengthen the runway.

He said that's because "the environmental process for doing that was thwarted by the City of Atlanta," which owns close to 10,000 acres surrounding the Paulding airport that it acquired in the 1970s as a possible site for a second airport.

To make way for Silver Comet in the terminal building, Paulding airport staff may need to move to construction trailers initially, while considering options including a sublease or moving into a commercial hangar, Tibbitts said. The hangar will require modifications to move in, and the airport authority doesn’t currently have the money to make the modifications, he said.

“Anytime you do business with the Paulding County airport, it is our intention to follow through with all of the terms in all of the contracts that we sign, whether we like it or not,” Tibbitts said.