Delta vows to fight Paulding airline flights

CEO responds to latest plan for option to Hartsfield-Jackson

Elly Yu contributed to this report from New York.

Delta Air Lines' top executive said Friday the Atlanta-based carrier will fight a plan to add commercial air service at a small regional airport in Paulding County.

“With the city of Atlanta and Mayor (Kasim) Reed, we will work together to oppose any investment in that facility,” Delta chief executive Richard Anderson said in New York City, where he was attending a conference.

Anderson’s reaction came just hours after the AJC reported that Propeller Investments, whose bid to bring airline flights to Gwinnett County failed last year, is now in partnership with the Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport to do the same there, as well as to create a cluster of aviation-related businesses in the area.

Propeller chief executive Brett Smith told the AJC he hopes to announce airline service to Paulding by year’s end after the airport receives necessary federal approvals. He said his firm is talking with carriers with jets in the size range of the Boeing 737. He declined to name the carriers.

“It’s going to be limited to start,” Smith said.

The operation he envisions — one airline with a few flights a week, at least initially — wouldn’t constitute a true alternative to Hartsfield-Jackson, which has more than 1,000 takeoffs every day. Paulding’s airport, west of the county seat of Dallas and 38 miles from downtown Atlanta, is tiny and remote, with no control tower.

Still, it is the latest attempt to offer alternative airline service in the Atlanta region, one of the few in the nation with only one commercial airport.

Delta has historically opposed the idea of a second commercial airport in metro Atlanta.

“Hartsfield-Jackson is the best, most important airport in the Southeast, if not in the United States,” Anderson said. “It is a gem of an asset for the community and all of our resources need to be spent in keeping our Hartsfield-Jackson number one in the world.

“And resources should not be dissipated for a facility that will take an enormous amount of cash and ultimately be an economic and community failure.”

Public opposition to big jets sank Propeller’s bid to run Gwinnett’s Briscoe Field last year, and the same concern has shot down other “second airport” initiatives.

In contrast to the Gwinnett effort, which required a key vote from the county commission, Smith said his company already has signed contracts with the Paulding airport’s governing authority.

Blake Swafford, director of the Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport, said the airport has also already submitted applications to the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration seeking approvals to allow commercial airline service.

Swafford said there are no public hearings or noise mitigation moves necessary because of the small scale of airline service planned, and he said the airport underwent an environmental study when it was built in 2008.

The FAA said Thursday it is reviewing the request for a certificate to conduct airline operations, and will also determine if there are any environmental consequences of the upgrade. The agency expects a decision in the next 70 days.

Other details could be daunting: The airport would need security infrastructure and staffing, including $250,000 worth of perimeter fencing for which it plans to seek an FAA grant.

Anderson indicated that Delta would seek to block such funding requests for the Paulding airport.

“We are adamantly opposed to spending any resource or funding on an airport other than Hartsfield-Jackson,” he said.

Smith said Propeller also would spend several million dollars, including building a temporary control tower until the FAA put up a permament one. Baggage handling infrastructure would also be needed.

Work on added runway shoulders and a taxiway extension is already underway, funded by a mix of federal grants or airport authority bonds that could be reimbursed by future grants. That work is expected to be done by year’s end.

Still, opposition could arise.

“If there are justifiable concerns, then we try to adjust what those concerns are,” Swafford said.

“I’m sure that somebody might be annoyed… There’s probably a handful of folks that may have some issues,” said Paulding County Board of Commissioners chairman David Austin, who is also on the airport authority. But he doesn’t think it will delay plans. “Our biggest approval comes from the FAA,” Austin said.

Delta Air Lines, Hartsfield-Jackson’s biggest tenant, has historically opposed a second airport in metro Atlanta. But Austin said because the Paulding airline service would be so limited, “I couldn’t see them spending a lot of time worrying about our tiny little airport.”

The county-owned airport sports a small but handsome terminal and a 6,000-foot runway — long enough for anything up to a mid-size airliner, though not for widebodies. Currently the airport handles about two dozen flights a day by small planes, and it has a flight school.

Propeller late last year struck a deal to lease the terminal and take a lease option on 60 surrounding acres. As part of the plan, the airport will be renamed Silver Comet Field at Paulding Northwest Atlanta.

In years past the idea of a second airport usually dovetailed with speculation that it might draw Southwest Airlines, the low-cost carrier that’s grown into a national power. But Southwest chose a different route into the market, buying AirTran Airways and taking over its sizable Hartsfield-Jackson operation.

Several smaller, leisure-oriented airlines, such as Allegiant Air, specialize in vacation package and charter flights and use smaller airports around the country.

On the other hand, airlines have been cutting service to small cities, leading many small airports to lose airline service and revert back to general aviation airports catering to private jets and charter service.

The Paulding airport has no direct interstate access and no major transit service from metro Atlanta. Swafford said he expects the flights from his airport may appeal to those who live in Paulding and nearby counties such as Cobb, Douglas, Carroll, Haralson, Polk and Bartow.

Swafford said he wouldn’t expect a large operation to evolve. “We’re always going to be … constrained” because of limitations of the airport, he said. But he expects the airport’s small size to also be part of the appeal.

“The experience of going in and out of a small airport (is) a very nice way to begin or end your trip, especially if it’s 20 or 30 minutes from your home instead of an hour and a half from your home,” Swafford said.

“We’re in a very infant stage right now so it would be hard to guess what the possibilities of this airport would be,” said Austin.

The airport sits amid 10,000 acres of land the city of Atlanta, which owns and runs Hartsfield-Jackson, bought in the 1970s as the possible site of a second airport to relieve congestion. The city never pursued the option and is not connected to the county’s plan.

Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Louis Miller on Friday noted that a 2011 study commissioned by the airport found that it did not make economic sense to build a second commercial airport to relieve capacity at Hartsfield-Jackson on the city of Atlanta’s land in Paulding County, or on any other site.

Miller said Smith and Swafford’s plan for limited airline service is “an interesting concept,” adding, “If they get a chance, it’s going to be difficult to generate enough traffic. In terms of the impact on Hartsfield-Jackson, it’s going to be minimal.”

Smith said when he visited the Paulding airport at Swafford’s invitation, “I knew at that moment I didn’t want to give up” on the idea of a second airport for Atlanta.

He noted that the acreage around the Paulding airfield creates a buffer zone that has limited residential development and, presumably, opposition to commercial service there.

Aside from luring airline service, the county hopes Propeller will help it draw aerospace and aviation companies to drive economic development.

“We think [Propeller is] going to be able to help us specifically in recruiting businesses to the airport,” Swafford said. “That is our big vision.”