Provision to prevent state takeover of ATL airport included in federal FAA law

The measure, intended to prevent hostile takeover, was introduced by U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock
Travelers move up and down Concourse C at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Monday, March 11, 2024.
Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Travelers move up and down Concourse C at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Monday, March 11, 2024. Miguel Martinez /

Tucked inside the massive Federal Aviation Administration bill signed into law this month is a measure that could temper future disputes over control of the Atlanta airport.

The provision within the FAA Reauthorization Act is aimed at preventing hostile takeovers of airports — such as past attempts by Republicans in the Georgia Legislature to take over Hartsfield-Jackson International from the Democrat-led city of Atlanta.

Championed by Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the measure codifies FAA policy that lays out requirements for a transfer of control of an airport, and strengthens language to prevent unilateral airport takeovers.

“It was a top priority for me,” said Warnock in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “From time to time, this issue comes up again, where you have, in my view, craven politicians at the state level trying to take over the airport.”

History of an airport takeover attempt

The state’s last major attempt to take control of the airport from the city of Atlanta, however, came at a time when the city was under a cloud of scandal and facing widespread scrutiny of some of its leaders.

Efforts for a state takeover crested in 2019 when the city was under federal investigation into corruption. A longtime Atlanta contractor was indicted on bribery charges; two former city contractors and three former city employees received prison sentences.

That includes the former deputy chief of staff for former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Katrina Taylor-Parks, who was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for accepting nearly $15,000 worth of bribes while working in Reed’s administration. Former city Chief Procurement Officer Adam Smith in 2017 pleaded guilty to accepting more than $30,000 in payoffs from a company that did business with the city.

Then-State Sen. Burt Jones sponsored a bill that would shift control of Hartsfield-Jackson, saying the airport should be operated at arm’s length from politics rather than under the control of the Atlanta mayor. Jones is now lieutenant governor. His office did not have a comment about the FAA legislation.

In March 2019, the Georgia Senate approved a measure to give the state control of Hartsfield-Jackson, saying it was needed to protect the state’s economic engine from corruption and mismanagement. The bill died in the House.

Financial risks

Even though the state takeover never came to fruition, “the debate itself every few years creates uncertainty,” Warnock said. “Any business person will tell you that if there’s any enemy to business, it’s uncertainty.”

Peter Kirsch, an attorney who specializes in airport law at the law firm Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, said uncertainty can harm airports’ abilities to sell bonds — a crucial way they finance improvements and construction.

“Nobody’s going to buy bonds for an entity where they’re not quite sure who the entity is and who controls the entity,” he said. “Providing certainty in the financial markets for a big airport like Atlanta is really important.”

Because it was previously just FAA policy, “states could attempt to effectively overrule that policy by their own legislative action,” Kirsch said. “So it was certainly a serious risk to airports, that relying just on that policy was very, very risky and very uncertain.”

As a result, “there was a lot of desire on the part of airports to make sure that the existing policy was codified in a way that would give security to airports that these sort of takeover efforts were not going to be successful,” Kirsch said.

Stronger language

Although the restrictions on airport takeovers are now codified into law as part of the FAA bill — among other measures to improve aviation safety and passenger rights — Warnock acknowledged: “I can’t guarantee you that they (in the State Legislature) won’t bring it up again.”

“What I know is that I have strengthened the language, made it clearer and codified it into law,” he said. Warnock originally introduced a version of the language into a Senate version of the bill, and the final version was included in the FAA bill passed by the House and signed into law.

Already under a policy set in 2016, the FAA would not allow a takeover of an airport without the current operator’s consent, unless there was a final judicial decision requiring the change or other resolution of the dispute.

But the FAA Reauthorization Act passed by Congress has stronger language to remove the possibility of an alternate interpretation of what qualifies as a resolution of the dispute, Kirsch said.

Race and airport control

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, a City Council member before being elected mayor, was part of the city’s efforts to fend off a state takeover of the airport. In a written statement this week, he thanked Warnock “and all who worked on guaranteeing additional protections” for the city.

Along with the corruption investigation of Atlanta City Hall that began during Reed’s administration, racial divisions between the state of Georgia and City of Atlanta were seen as behind the past airport takeover attempt.

The city’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, pioneered minority contracting at the Atlanta airport. Atlanta has been led by a Black mayor for 50 years, while the governor and much of the Republican-led Legislature is white.

Warnock, in discussing why he prioritized this legislation, invoked Maynard Jackson’s legacy “and his commitment to creating wealth among the citizens of Atlanta, and that that wealth should be diverse.”

“And so you have a model in Atlanta that the rest of the country really should be trying to imitate, of Black businesses, businesses owned by other people of color, women-owned businesses. It looks like America,” Warnock said. “This is part of the Atlanta story.”

Other airport takeover attempts

Atlanta isn’t alone in seeing the state attempt to take over its locally run airport. Other local airport authorities that have faced more recent state takeover attempts include Nashville, Tennessee and Jackson, Mississippi.

Warnock said at the federal level, there was bipartisan support for the measure to codify FAA policy, which “was put in place by the Obama administration (and) kept intact during the Trump administration.”

The move prevents a future administration from being able to “go back and change the rules,” he said. With the law now in the books, it would require an act of Congress to loosen the restrictions to allow an airport takeover.

Kirsch said this legislation had been discussed for years, “and Warnock really is the one who took the ball and ran with it, and really made sure that it it stayed in the bill to the very end.”

“I think it will discourage new efforts” at contested airport takeovers, Kirsch said.