Ga. Senate panel shows continued interest in Atlanta airport authority

Chairman Burt Jones directs a meeting of the Senate Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Operations and Authority Creation Study Committee at the Georgia state capitol to discuss proposals regarding the airport on Thursday December 27th, 2018 (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Chairman Burt Jones directs a meeting of the Senate Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Operations and Authority Creation Study Committee at the Georgia state capitol to discuss proposals regarding the airport on Thursday December 27th, 2018 (Photo by Phil Skinner)

A State Senate study committee recommended Thursday the state considering creating an authority to oversee Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The idea, however, will continue to face stiff opposition from the city of Atlanta, which runs the airport, and from Delta Air Lines officials. It’s unclear how successful any legislation might be once the session begins in January.

The Atlanta airport has come under scrutiny from some state lawmakers amid a federal bribery investigation into City Hall that resulted in the city's former chief procurement officer being sentenced to prison, lawsuits over airport contracting, and a Federal Aviation Administration probe into the possible misuse of Hartsfield-Jackson revenue.

The airport, "as an economic engine for the state, it dwarfs anything else we have," said the study committee chair, State Sen. Burt Jones (R-Jackson) as the committee reviewed its final report Thursday. "You cannot continue to have indictments, investigations and things that have taken place that's really, quite frankly, kind of embarrassing for the state as a whole."

He has also said that a state-operated airport authority could better examine the possibility of creating a second commercial airport, an idea Atlanta-based Delta has rejected in the past.

Jones said the committee is recommending the Georgia Legislature “take a serious look at putting forward legislation that both chambers can agree on, as well as something they feel the governor’s office will sign.”

Some committee members said they wanted to avoid the term “takeover,” and Jones said he wants to continue discussions with city of Atlanta officials.

"We'd rather have a partnership in this," Jones said. "I think long term, a business enterprise authority, much like our ports and [Georgia World Congress Center], is in the best interests of the state as a whole."

Atlanta officials and Delta Air Lines, however, are opposed to a shift in control of the airport away from the city. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently told the editorial board at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she told Gov.-elect Brian Kemp that she does not want the state taking over the airport.

“I felt like we had been heard,” Bottoms said about that discussion with Kemp.

Atlanta officials have contended that a provision in bond and airline lease documents restricts any change of control of Hartsfield-Jackson. But the committee’s report says those issues, while complicated, are not “an insurmountable hurdle.”

The Senate study committee, which launched in the summer and has held five meetings, voted in favor of approving the recommendations in the report.

Jones said the authority idea "seems to have some pretty good traction in the Senate," and he plans to meet with the House speaker and key members of the House leadership on the matter.

“We’ve got to look and see what is plausible in the House,” he said. “It is a Herculean task regardless.”

Not everyone on the Senate study committee was as enthusiastic about the idea of a change in governance of Hartsfield-Jackson.

“Have we gotten a couple or three black eyes as a result of the missteps that have happened? Yeah, no denying,” said State Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale). “But that is few among the masses… We know that on every level of government, if you peel back enough layers, you’re going to find something.”

Seay said she believes the committee’s scrutiny of the airport has already resulted in the city taking steps toward reform. She added that in her Clayton County district, where most of Hartsfield-Jackson sits, some are questioning: “Why they want to take over [the airport] when the mantra has always been local control?”

Robert Highsmith, an attorney representing the city of Atlanta, said evidence presented to the committee dated back decades.

“There was no evidence from the past decade to support a governance change,” Highsmith said. “It’s my view that a majority of the members of the General Assembly will want to see more before moving forward with legislation.”

Atlanta City Councilman Matt Westmoreland, who attended the Senate study committee’s meeting Thursday, said he is interested in ideas to make the airport stronger.

“But I’m a believer that the structure [the airport has] is working,” Westmoreland said.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian has also voiced support for the airport’s current governance structure under Atlanta, whose leadership has long had a close relationship with the carrier that dominates Hartsfield-Jackson.

“It is the best run airport in the world, and the city has done a fine job managing it,” Bastian said. “Could it be improved in terms of governance, transparency… Absolutely. And I think the mayor is fully on board with that.”

“My suggestion is that we continue to support the city, and support the increased level of transparency, continue to work arm-in-arm with the mayor,” he said. “I think that the city is committed to making some of the changes to ensure that it doesn’t get caught in some of the financial issues that the airport has been corrupted by in the past.”

Over the years, the city of Atlanta has faced lawsuits alleging cronyism in the award of airport contracts, including in concessions contract challenges and in a years-long lawsuit over an airport advertising contract.

After more recent questions about airport concessions contracts, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms earlier this month said she plans to rebid those contracts once the city has "cleaned up the procurement process" under its new chief procurement officer.

Why it matters

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest airport, handles more than 100 million passengers a year and is owned and operated by the City of Atlanta.

While the city-run airport wins accolades for operating efficiently, the airport’s contracting and spending has come under scrutiny from lawsuits and federal investigations.

A State Senate study committee is recommending creating an authority to oversee Hartsfield-Jackson, which could change who makes decisions on how the airport is run.

From the report:

The committee, which examined the history of the Atlanta airport going back decades, said it found allegations “constituted actual and verifiable incidents of misconduct occurring under the management structure.”

“This pattern of concluded convictions, leading up to current investigations, demonstrates an institutional flaw greater than the missteps of a sole administration.”

“While there is no evidence to suggest the current City Administration has been involved in any disreputable activities involving the Airport, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that these activities will forever be present due to the current departmental structure.”

“This Committee recommends that a more proper and accountable structure… be created to help oversee the business enterprise of a new authority designed to oversee the operation of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The Georgia State Legislature should look to the example set by institutions such as the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and the Georgia Ports Authority…. An entity of this structure would allow for continued aviation growth benefiting the entire State of Georgia.”

The committee recommended “that an authority management structure for the Airport be seriously vetted and created for implementation by the Georgia State Legislature.”

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