Delta: Paulding airport plan will fail

Plans to bring airline service to Paulding County’s tiny airport drew quick criticism Friday from two giant opponents: Delta Air Lines and the city of Atlanta.

“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 Friday in New York City, where he was attending a conference.

His comments came after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport expects to start limited airline service in the next several months, reviving the idea of a second commercial airport for the region.

The airport’s partner in the plan is Propeller Investments, whose bid to commercialize Gwinnett County’s Briscoe Field failed last year.

Reed’s office also issued a statement Friday saying the city of Atlanta “will not support Propeller Investment’s efforts to add commercial air service.”

Delta, the biggest tenant at city-owned Hartsfield-Jackson International, has historically opposed the idea of a second commercial airport in metro Atlanta, but has typically worked behind-the-scenes lobbying against it. Anderson’s comments were unusually blunt and suggest Delta sees potential for Paulding to grow into a competitive threat.

He said “all of our resources need to be spent in keeping our Hartsfield-Jackson (International) number one in the world,” adding that “resources should not be dissipated for a facility that will take an enormous amount of cash and ultimately be an economic and community failure.”

Paulding airport director Blake Swafford called Anderson’s comments “arrogant” and “short-sighted” and said they won’t affect the airport’s plans, which also include drawing aviation-related businesses.

Propeller Investments chief executive Brett Smith said his company already has signed contracts with the Paulding airport’s governing authority and is in talks with potential airlines.

“We’re surprised that Delta would be opposed to any economic development activity that would benefit the community and region that have given them so much,” he said in a statement Friday. “The project has the full support of Paulding leadership and that’s what matters.”

Atlanta frequent flier Phil Bush said he likes the idea generally, noting Atlanta is one of the few big U.S. cities reliant on one airport.

“It’s better for us to have more service and more options. that’s a good thing,” Bush said.

Traveler Kevin Cleary said he prefers smaller airports, adding that at Hartsfield-Jackson, “it’s just congested to walk through and it’s hard to get service.”

The Paulding airport has already applied for Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration approvals for airline service. It’s unclear how Delta and the city of Atlanta could seek to derail those, but the Paulding facility also needs various improvements that would depend on FAA funding of some type.

Just as important, Anderson’s comments could be a caution flag to any airlines considering starting flights there, in effect telling them: Come to Paulding and prepare for a cutthroat battle with the nation’s second-biggest airline, one whose massive fleet enables it to add flights and cut fares on any route.

Smith hasn’t named potential airlines for the Paulding service. But Allegiant Air, which specializes in vacation packages and charters, confirmed Friday it has been in talks with the Paulding County airport, which is the process of renaming itself Silver Comet Field.

“We are constantly evaluating new opportunities across the country,” Allegiant spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said in a written statement, adding the carrier had nothing to announce “at this time.”

The consumer effect is hard to assess until an airline announces plans. At one time hopes for a second airport revolved around the idea it would draw Southwest Airlines into the market, but Southwest is now a major player at Hartsfield-Jackson. Frequent fliers on the northside have hoped for a more convenient alternative, but Paulding, 38 miles northwest of downtown, would be farther away for some.

A leisure carrier geared toward package tours, such as Allegiant, books fliers more on the basis of an overall package rather than a specific fare or convenience — although Allegiant does sell some seats to non-package fliers. Other small discount carriers could also be candidates. Frontier said Friday it’s not interested. Spirit Airlines declined comment.

The airport and Propeller envision limited airline service: one airline with a few flights a week. Hartsfield-Jackson has more than 1,000 takeoffs every day.

“We’re going to be a drop in the bucket compared to Hartsfield,” Swafford said. “So is our service going to drive down prices at Hartsfield? No, probably not… But it does provide another option for consumers that they currently don’t have.”

The Paulding airport, built in 2008, is lightly used by private planes but has a 6,000-foot runway suitable for mid-sized airliners.

In Gwinnett County, county commissioners said Delta officials urged them to reject commercial flights. Delta was hardly alone in fighting the plan there, however, with neighborhood opposition playing a key role.

The Paulding plans could also generate complaints, although officials say no public approvals are needed. In 1999, Paulding residents voted for a reservoir on the site over the idea of a regional airport. The airport was built anyway because federal funds were available.

The city of Atlanta at one time considered opening a second airport in Paulding to relieve congestion at Hartsfield-Jackson. But it has long since dropped that idea.

Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Louis Miller on Friday noted that an airport-commissioned study in 2011 found it was not economically feasible to build a reliever airport, in Paulding or anywhere else.

Miller called the Paulding-Propeller plan “an interesting concept” but added, “If they get a chance, it’s going to be difficult to generate enough traffic” to make it successful.

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