DeCosta leaves accomplishment and controversy behind

Yet when DeCosta told Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed he planned to step down as general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson International, the city’s new leader didn’t try to talk him out of it.

“We did not have that conversation,” Reed said last week in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “At the end of the day, there was a conversation about us moving in a new direction and his plans for he and his wife to travel.”

DeCosta, 64, abruptly announced last week that he will leave the city-owned airport after a decade-long run of both accomplishment and controversy. His departure leaves Reed the challenge of finding a successor who can run the world’s busiest airport, complete the new international terminal and work smoothly with both city hall and airlines.

Recently DeCosta’s tenure was marked by often tense relations between the Brooklyn-born airport chief and Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson, a one-time Texas prosecutor who took the giant carrier’s reins in 2007.

A few months back, DeCosta made no secret of his concerns about some parts of a new seven-year lease with Delta, which he felt short-changed the city. Before that, Delta had forced DeCosta to slash the cost of the Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. International Terminal-- an icon of DeCosta’s stewardship -- in exchange for its crucial support of bond financing.

DeCosta was known to vent to trusted associates about what he saw as heavy-handed tactics by the Delta, and he blamed them on Anderson. Delta is the world’s largest airline and, by far, Hartsfield-Jackson’s biggest tenant, dominating the airport’s flight schedules.

During a meeting with AJC editors and reporters about the lease issue late last year, Anderson showed up with then-Mayor Shirley Franklin, whose staff led negotiations on the agreement. DeCosta was absent. The Delta CEO was asked if he would support an extension of DeCosta’s contract.

“I haven’t even considered that,” Anderson said, passing up a chance to voice support for the airport chief.

Neither man would discuss the matter last week, but airport and airline officials interviewed for this story say the working relationship between DeCosta and Anderson continued to deteriorate over time.

In his weekly taped message to Delta employees Friday, Anderson noted that DeCosta “has chosen to leave the airport.” The CEO went on to mention improvements at Hartsfield-Jackson during DeCosta’s tenure, including the new lease.

Those improvements “are directly responsible for the growth and international reach of Atlanta now on our network,” Anderson said. “As a result of Ben’s vision for this airport and dedication to our community, the entire region has benefitted.”

DeCosta plans to exit when his contract expires in June. A brief memo to the City Council, issued Monday after his conversation with Reed, offered little explanation other than his desire to “pass the torch.”

“After discussing it with my wife, we decided it was time for a change in direction,” DeCosta wrote.

DeCosta refused to elaborate as reporters surrounded him last week after a routine presentation to the City Council’s Transportation Committee, which oversees the airport.

“Don’t ambush me,” DeCosta told a gaggle of reporters as he pushed the elevator button at City Hall. When the elevator doors opened, DeCosta quickly stepped inside and left the questioners behind.

Reed has promised a nationwide search for a new airport chief but has not set a timetable. The mayor stressed that DeCosta will be on the job five more months. Reed said he has complete confidence in DeCosta’s top assistant, Mario Diaz, during the interim.

“The airport is in very capable hands,” Reed said.

About 56,000 people have jobs directly connected to the airport, including 1,000 in the city’s Department of Aviation. Nearly 90 million passengers pass through its concourses annually, and about 1 million planes take off or land at the airport each year. Its annual economic impact on the region is a staggering $24 billion.

DeCosta came to Atlanta after a stint as general manager of Newark International Airport. A sometimes quirky executive who keeps a digital camera at hand to photograph airport problems and events, he survived two Atlanta mayors and worked with three Delta CEOs. He has been widely praised in the airport industry for running an efficient shop, despite early snarls in both the fifth runway and international terminal projects and legal disputes over the airport’s lucrative concessions program.

In addition to the new runway, DeCosta’s tenure saw construction of the nation’s tallest control tower and an off-site rental car center connected by an aerial tram.

The airport, after some initial misfires, also worked with the Transportation Security Administration to cut security wait-times and renovated once-dingy concourses with tile and sparkling new bathrooms.

“He has an outstanding reputation -- he’s highly respected,” Chip Barclay, president of the American Association of Airport Executives, said of DeCosta, who sits on the group’s board. “He’s one of those people who usually knows what he’s talking about when he’s saying something.”

Said Christina Cassotis, leader of airport services for airport consulting firm SH&E: “Every airport and every airline where you’ve got a hub relationship -- you’re going to have people who each need to meet their own objectives. I think Ben has done it as well as anyone in some very difficult industry times.”

But DeCosta has also amassed his share of critics.

One is Atlanta businessman Billy Corey, who has waged a longrunning legal battle with the city after losing a bid for the advertising concession at Hartsfield-Jackson. Corey contends the bidding process was biased and the concessions program is little more than a huge pot of money set aside for those politically connected to city hall and past mayors.

“He (DeCosta) tolerated corrupt contracting practices, and that is a blot on his tenure,” said former state Attorney General Mike Bowers, now a private practice lawyer who represents Corey.

A few years back, DeCosta’s capital improvement plan was hammered by city auditor Leslie Ward, who found it has exceeded initial cost estimates by $640 million. The audit concluded five of eight projects were behind schedule. DeCosta shrugged off the report, arguing that Ward has misread initial construction estimates.

“There was no design at that point,” DeCosta said. “They were just budget numbers.”

DeCosta also got into a major row with the initial design firm for the international terminal. The firm was fired and sued the city in a legal action that still has not been resolved.

DeCosta’s departure has generated major buzz in the aviation community. He was the highest paid city employee -- his salary and perks approach $300,000 a year -- and one aviation expert compared running Hartsfield-Jackson to coaching the New York Yankees.

“We’re going to be looking for the most talented person we can possible find,” Reed said. “The number of people that will be competitive for that position is very small. You will have to have experience running a global airport in a major market.”

The mayor said expanding air cargo opportunities at the airport will be among his expectations.

In addition to finishing the $1.4 billion international terminal -- scheduled for a 2012 opening -- the new airport boss will be tasked with updating and moving forward with the airport’s master plan. Possible eventual projects include an additional domestic terminal and a sixth runway.

“Whoever comes in is going to have to be politically astute and manage politics with Delta, the other carriers in Atlanta, as well as the city of Atlanta and government officials in D.C., as well as other airline executives around the world,” consultant Cassotis said.

DeCosta, for his part, said he plans to focus on tasks at hand during his final months on the job.

“We’re doing heart surgery on a marathon runner while the race is under way,” DeCosta said. “I don’t want my people to get distracted.

Staff Writer Eric Stirgus contributed to this report.

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