Could state be poised to take over Hartsfield-Jackson Airport?

Bill that would give state control clears Senate panel

A bill that could allow a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport cleared a state Senate committee on Tuesday overcoming opposition by the city of Atlanta and Delta Air Lines.

Senate Bill 131 — introduced by state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson — would create the Georgia Major Airport Authority to control the world's busiest airport. The Senate transportation committee passed the bill with a 5-4 vote Tuesday evening.

State legislators' interest in taking over Hartsfield-Jackson from the city of Atlanta has grown amid a federal corruption investigation into Atlanta City Hall and lawsuits over the years alleging steering of airport contracts.

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 on Thursday December 27th, 2018 (Photo by Phil Skinner)

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“I think it shows a pattern that’s troubling, really. It is embarrassing for the city and the state,” Jones said. “We are serious about this.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called the move“nothing short, in my opinion, of an attempted theft from the people of Atlanta and the city of Atlanta.”

The bill includes an amendment introduced by Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Alpharetta, that would provide an out from a state airport takeover— if the city and the Georgia General Assembly agree on a “joint governance plan” by July 2020, in which case the airport takeover act would be repealed. Gooch said the wording is “very broad” and “could mean they keep the operation just as it is, with the exception of procurement,” if that’s what the state and city agreed to.

But Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, who voted against the legislation, called the amendment similar to “negotiating with a gun to your head.” Also voting against the measure was Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, and David Lucas, D-Macon.

It was not immediately clear if the bill would advance to a vote by the full Senate.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms  blasted a bill that would allow the state to take control of Hartsfield Jackson. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Other hurdles also remain. During discussion of the bill, Ginn echoed Bottoms’ concerns and asked how much Hartsfield-Jackson is worth and how the city of Atlanta would be compensated.

Jones said there is no current provision for payment to the city. “You have to have enabling legislation, you have to have [Federal Aviation Administration] approval,” Jones said. “You do have to make a case” to the FAA, he said.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian has said he opposes a state takeover. Atlanta is Delta’s hub and the airline is one of the biggest employers in the state.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bottoms said potential barriers to the deal include FAA guidelines and bonds that would “essentially be undone” in an ownership change.

“It creates a level of uncertainty that’s not helpful for day-to-day operations at the airport,” the mayor said. “We will do everything in our power to make sure this does not happen.”