State study committee to stir up issue of Hartsfield-Jackson control

A state study committee set to look at the idea of creating an airport authority to run Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is raising questions about the best way to operate the world’s busiest airport.

The state has raised the possibility of taking over the Atlanta airport periodically over the years. The most recent push came earlier this year when State. Sen. Burt Jones (R-Jackson) introduced a bill to create a statewide board to manage the airport.

Jones said there should be a “holistic vision for the state on transportation, aviation and transit,” adding: “We’re missing a good opportunity by not having state input over the biggest economic engine in the state.”

After encountering resistance, including from Gov. Nathan Deal's administration and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Jones instead introduced a resolution to create a study committee on the possibility of making the change.

"I decided one session would be too fast to try and push it through," Jones said at the time. The study group's members have not been announced yet, but the resolution prescribes a bipartisan group of 13 senators appointed by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

“We’ll look at all the parameters and what makes the most sense,” Jones said in March, “and then we’ll look at it next session and see what we want to do.”

The Atlanta airport has been run by the city since the 1920s. It has an estimated economic impact of more than $70 billion for the state and is home to 63,300 jobs.

Bottoms told the AJC in an interview earlier this year: "We have the busiest and most efficient airport, and it's running well."

“Under the City’s Department of Aviation, the airport has generated billions of dollars in economic impact for metro Atlanta and remains the state’s largest employer,” according to a Bottoms spokesman Friday. “We see no need in change of oversight.”

But the prominence of the airport and the flow of money can also give rise to a variety of ills.

The state’s push comes amid challenges and controversy at Hartsfield-Jackson, including response to a debilitating blackout in December, a federal bribery investigation that has reached into airport contracts, and a deputy airport manager who was fired after revelations about a potential conflict of interest.

The Senate resolution says “in the interest of public welfare, national security, and economic stability, the transfer of operations of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to an authority might best serve and protect the citizens of Georgia.”

But it also notes a study is needed to determine what federal laws and regulations would apply and what financial obligations would be involved in a transfer of the airport to an authority.

‘We would fight for our airport’

If control of the airport were transferred, “of course we’d have to untangle a lot of our finances,” including bonds issued by the city, said Andre Dickens, who chairs the Atlanta city council transportation committee, which oversees Hartsfield-Jackson.

Roosevelt Council, outgoing general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson, told city council members: “They think if the state operates it, they could do better. I think that’s subjective.”

“We would fight for our airport,” Dickens said. “We have this world-class thing. It’s not easy to build that.”

Dickens said if state legislators knew how complex the airport's operations are, "They might say, 'Oh, it's going well, let's leave it be.'"

“I think there’s a feeling out there that the city profits from the airport,” said Greg Richardson, Hartsfield-Jackson’s chief financial officer during the city council’s visit to the airport earlier this year. “Can’t happen.”

Indeed, Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibit “revenue diversion” — funneling money away from an airport. The Atlanta airport is run as a separate fund from the city’s general fund.

But there are other benefits to the city by running an airport.

A large airport like Atlanta's requires multi-million dollar contracts to keep it running — for operations and maintenance, construction, restaurants and shops.

That puts the power over hundreds of millions of dollars of spending in the hands of the city, with city council members casting crucial votes to approve contracts.

As such, many Atlanta elected officials' campaign coffers are filled with contributions from airport contractors.

And the federal bribery investigation has ensnared some city contractors. Dickens said legislation is in the works for ethical reforms.

The Atlanta airport isn’t the first to trigger interest in a state takeover.

Back in 2013, proposed legislation in North Carolina called the “Charlotte Regional Airport Authority Act” aimed for the state to take over the airport from the city of Charlotte.

In response, the city of Charlotte commissioned a study on the matter — only for some city council members to be dismayed when the consultant recommended the airport be overseen by an authority, according to news reports.

The report prepared by consulting firm Oliver Wyman said “we conclude that the Airport has thrived under City management, but that nevertheless a different governance structure should be considered for the future.”

It said “the best form of governance for the Charlotte airport is a properly structured airport authority,” which can reduce political involvement in airport management, allow it to function like a corporate board, separate finances from the city, develop its own contracting and procurement policies for “more nimble procurement and possibly lower costs,” and develop pay to attract and retain top talent.

The bill for the state takeover of Charlotte's airport passed, but the city filed suit and a judge issued an injunction, according to media reports. Then, the FAA said it would accept an application for a management change at an airport only if there is "legally definitive" resolution of a dispute, keeping the airport under city control. Today, the city of Charlotte still owns and operates Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

AJC staff writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this article.