Airline flights from Gwinnett? Firm makes a pitch

AJC Exclusive: NY group envisions 20 daily commercial flights at Briscoe Field

A New York firm has told Gwinnett County leaders that it would like to acquire Briscoe Field near Lawrenceville, expand the runway and begin up to 20 daily commercial flights to such destinations as New York, Chicago and Washington, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

Propeller Investments, the private equity firm behind the idea, would install 10 gates at a new terminal at Briscoe and enable planes as large as the Boeing 737 to land and take off from Gwinnett’s airport, said Propeller’s managing director, Brett Smith.

Smith said an upgraded airport would provide hassle-free travel to major cities and eliminate traffic headaches that many experience driving to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The idea faces serious obstacles, including almost inevitable opposition from nearby residents and a number of procedural hurdles at multiple levels of government. Even if Propeller were able to clear all those obstacles, experts said it might then have trouble attracting commercial service to Lawrenceville.

Privatizing the airport is one thing, said aviation consultant Mike Boyd.

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“But in terms of doing it and being able to attract scheduled passenger commercial service — an Elvis sighting is more likely,” Boyd said. “What airline is going to go to a secondary airport when it’s easy to get to Hartsfield-Jackson and you can go anywhere in the world from Hartsfield-Jackson?”

Smith said he has spoken with some “big players” among air carriers but declined to identify them. Propeller’s Web site, whyprivatizebriscoe.com, features a bold rendering on its home page that appears to include airplanes from both Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines on the tarmac at Briscoe.

A Delta spokesman said Monday the airline has no involvement with any changes at Briscoe and would have no further comment; Southwest did not respond to requests for comment.

Propeller has some longtime Atlanta airline executives on its team, including former World Airways President Gil Morgan, and, as an unpaid adviser, former Delta CEO Hollis Harris. Harris said he thinks the commercial operation makes sense.

“It would create more jobs, more economic growth and greater choice to travel,” Harris told the AJC. “A lot of the local travel comes from north of I-20. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to speak for Delta, but if I were still at Delta, I think I’d view a second [commercial] airport as good for the community.”

Fifteen years ago, residents near the airport shot down a state Department of Transportation proposal that would have grown Briscoe into a 33-gate “reliever” airport for Hartsfield-Jackson. One public hearing in Lawrenceville attracted 3,000 residents, most of them strongly opposed to a new commercial airport in their midst.

Smith said Propeller Investments does not intend Briscoe to become a “reliever” airport for Hartsfield-Jackson. He said the 10 gates would be a small, controlled operation at an airport that would remain largely devoted to general aviation. “This is something that will benefit Gwinnett County,” Smith said. “We really can’t grow beyond a 10-gate airport. We just really have to hope people see the value of it.”

It would take years to go through the federal procedures to privatize the airport, said Daniel Reimer, a partner at the law firm of Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, who has written a report on airport privatization. With the fifth runway added for more capacity at Hartsfield-Jackson and other new infrastructure in place there, Reimer also questioned the viability of a plan to privatize the airport and attract commercial service.

“It’s a terribly difficult thing to do without any track record,” Reimer said. “It’s extremely tough. Everybody believes they can attract Southwest and few people actually do.”

The federal requirements, including security operations, for converting Briscoe to commercial service are considerable, said Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport general manager Ben DeCosta.

“When you have a commercial airport, you need terminal space for processing passengers and parking, and that’s a really significant investment that needs to be made,” DeCosta said. “The second issue is noise.”

He said he’d “have to see more” before weighing in on the plan for the Gwinnett airport.

Where Briscoe Field would have about 20 flights per day and 10 gates, Hartsfield-Jackson has more than 200 gates and more than 2,500 takeoffs and landings per day.

Briscoe sits on 507 acres along Ga. 316 near Lawrenceville. It has one runway and is the fifth-busiest in Georgia. Owned by Gwinnett County, the airport operates with its own enterprise fund, meaning money it generates remains within the department. It has a yearly operating budget of about $1 million.

Morgan, another managing director with Propeller Investments, said the firm’s plans would require adding 500 feet to the length and 50 feet to the width of the runway. The current strip, completed as part of a $28 million expansion in 1991, measures 6,000 feet by 100 feet.

The lengthened runway could support jets carrying as many as 140 passengers, such as the 737. Airport manager Matt Smith said that, now, the largest aircraft flying into Briscoe is the Gulfstream V, which can seat as many as 19.

Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charles Bannister said the county has been fielding a number of private offers for the airport. He said commissioners would not proceed until there was sufficient time allowed for public comment.

However, he added, a carefully orchestrated expansion could lead to a steady revenue stream for taxpayers and economic development for the county.

Commissioner Mike Beaudreau, who first spoke of the county’s interest in airport privatization, said he sees tremendous potential for the project, but it is too early to make any commitments. Discussions on any agreement would be presented for public comment and would require examination of traffic and environmental impacts.

“The process is just starting,” Beaudreau said. “All those questions will be bandied about and answered.”

Nevertheless, he said a commercial operation would create jobs, increase potential for upgrades along Ga. 316 and provide an alternative to air travelers.

“Most of Gwinnett would love the opportunity to have a second choice besides Hartsfield, than having to drive all the way down there to pick up generally overpriced airfare and deal with the hassle of the world’s largest airport,” he said.

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