FAA adds new twist to airport contract snarl

A standoff between the Federal Aviation Administration and Georgia's Department of Transportation throws another wrench into a massive reshuffling of lucrative restaurant contracts at the world's busiest airport.

The FAA contends four Atlanta companies do not deserve a "disadvantaged" designation — a tag that may have given them an edge in winning contracts at Hartsfield-Jackson under the process that has played out over the past year.

Last winter - after a bid process that had already been started, stopped and started over again - the four companies won more than 40 spots for new restaurants, bars and kiosks.

Their licensed brands include Chick-fil-A, frozen yogurt establishment Pinkberry and the Chicken-n-Beer restaurant linked to Atlanta rapper Ludacris. The new eateries are scheduled to be completed over the next 12 to 18 months.

All told, Hartsfield-Jackson dished out concessions contracts worth $3 billion over a decade.

But the FAA said the owners of the four Atlanta restaurant companies in question were either too wealthy to qualify as disadvantaged, or were too hands-off to meet requirements that they actually control their companies.

The federal agency wants Georgia officials to yank the certificates, arguing that GDOT was "factually incorrect" and misapplied the rules when it granted the certifications.

A GDOT spokesman said the agency is reviewing the FAA's position.

The city of Atlanta, which says it can only go by GDOT certification of disadvantaged operators, says that it is continuing with plans to put all the new restaurants in place.

It could be months before the matter is decided, as the companies have multiple avenues of appeal and could also fight decertification in court.

Each of the companies touched by the controversy has operated at the airport for years. But some executives visited the airport rarely or not at all, according to records cited by the FAA.

"We do not believe it is possible for an...owner to exercise the degree of control the rules require...while never physically visiting its location or participating in the performance reviews," the FAA said in a terse letter to Michael Cooper, who oversees the certification program for GDOT.

"The degree of abdication of managerial responsibility suggested by never visiting the store in years is not compatible" with federal requirements, according to the FAA's letter.

Among the FAA's findings:

** Valerie Jackson and Brooke Jackson Edmond, the wife and daughter of Maynard Jackson, the city's first black mayor, are listed as executives of Atlanta Restaurant Partners. But Jackson and Edmond were never "badged" to get behind security barriers and visit the company's locations at the airport. They also did not attend concessions reviews.

** Vida Ghahremani, owner of Vida Concessions Inc., apparently did not visit her Caribou Coffee in the airport for six years. She did not get an airport badge and was not escorted to the location.

** Carol Hojeij, majority owner of Hojeij Branded Foods, visited the airport four times behind security four times from May 2010 to January 2012. Her husband did visit the store more than 480 times in that period. Also, the FAA found insufficient evidence that Carol Hojeij's net worth fell below a $750,000 limit set by federal rules.

** There was not enough proof that Mack Wilbourn, owner of a concessions company called Mack II, met the requirement that owners of disadvantaged businesses have personal net worths below $750,000. That ceiling was later raised to $1.32 million, but the FAA said Wilbourn could not meet that limit, either.

Carol Hojeij said Friday she is confident Hojeij will keep its certification as a disadvantaged airport concessionaire.

The other executives could not be reached for comment.

According to federal rules, the decision to remove a firm's eligibility for the "disadvantaged" tag must be made by people who were not involved in the original certification process.

Georgia officials have to give each firm a hearing or a chance to present information in writing. If their certifications are revoked, the companies can appeal to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Civil Rights. Any appeal beyond that would be to the federal courts.

The dispute doesn't affect any current or future restaurants at the new international terminal, as all of the slots involved are on gate concourses or in the main terminal.

It's unclear if the airport will eventually have to change some of its concessionaires because of the controversy. For now, Atlanta officials have said there are no plans to do so.

The process of awarding contracts was halted and restarted last year because the first round of proposals were deemed lacking in documentation. Then some losing concessionaires appealed the awards, claiming they were tilted toward politically-connected business owners. Those appeals failed.

The FAA, known mostly for air traffic control, got involved because it oversees a federal program to encourage participation by disadvantaged firms — including small, minority-controlled or women-owned firms — in airport contracts.

Airports that accept federal funding, including Hartsfield-Jackson, must establish goals for participation by disadvantaged companies.

WHICH RESTAURANTS ARE IN QUESTION?

The four companies being challenged have contracts to set up restaurants using these brand names under license: Ruby Tuesday, P.F. Chang's, Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, Pinkberry, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Varasano's Pizzeria, Chick-fil-A, Ruby's Diner, Asian Chao, Gold Coast Dogs, T.G.I. Friday's, Chicken-n-Beer, Atlanta Braves All-Star Grill, Goldberg's Bagel Co., Jersey Mike's Subs and Wienerz Grill.