Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport general manager Ben DeCosta abruptly announced Monday he will leave his job running the world's busiest airport when his contract expires at the end of June.
DeCosta, 64, who's managed the city of Atlanta-owned airport for 11 years, said in a statement it was time for a "change in direction" after talking to his wife. He said it was not an easy decision.
"The time feels right to now move on to new challenges and pass the torch to someone else," he said.
Mayor Kasim Reed, in his fourth week on the job, said in a statement he will conduct a national search for a replacement. Reed is in the midst of making several important hires, including a police chief and chief financial officer and now a airport general manager. Most commissioners and leading officials from the Shirley Franklin administration resigned before Reed took office on Jan. 4.
"His long-lasting achievements and dedication will leave an indelible impression on our airport," the mayor said in a statement.
The Brooklyn-born gadget aficionado did not discuss his future plans in his statement. He could not be reached for comment Monday evening.
Delta Air Lines, the airport's most important business partner, released a one sentence statement Monday night thanking DeCosta for his service and wishing him well.
DeCosta's announcement surprised some city leaders, such as Councilman H. Lamar Willis, who serves on the council's transportation committee. The city is in the midst of building an international terminal. It completed a new seven-year lease extension with Delta in November.
In September, DeCosta proposed an increase in federal fees on airline passenger tickets to help fund airport capital projects. Reed said often during the campaign he wants to further develop air cargo opportunities at the airport, which could be on the menu for DeCosta's replacement.
Willis noted DeCosta's role has included negotiating contracts with other local governments while ensuring the safety of the estimated 250,000 people who through the airport every day. DeCosta has occasionally been at the center of some bruising battles with business, civic and political leaders over some of his positions on airport issues.
"You need to be able to communicate and to be able to navigate those toils and snares that can be put out in front of you when you deal with Fulton County and Clayton County and Atlanta," Willis said in an interview.
DeCosta was likely the highest-paid employee on the city payroll, including the mayor. In March 2007, the City Council approved a three-year contract for DeCosta with an annual salary of $255,000 and a 4-percent yearly increase.
During his tenure, the airport completed the fifth runway, built a 398-foot control tower that was the nation's tallest and developed an off-airport rental car center and train system. In his statement, DeCosta also noted the security checkpoint has been enhanced to reduce passenger wait times. He also managed the airport through new security regulations after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
DeCosta came under fire from council members in 2001 for his initial support of a single-bid dirt contract. The contractor later pleaded guilty to giving then-Mayor Bill Campbell $130,000 in illegal campaign contributions. DeCosta wasn't implicated in any wrongdoing. Critics complained DeCosta has been a hard-nosed negotiator who doesn't return telephone calls in a timely fashion.
In addition to completing the new international terminal, DeCosta's replacement will be charged with managing the airport through a period of declining revenues due to the recession.
The airport's current 12-month operating budget, which runs through June 30, is about $141 million, with a full-time staff of about 550 employees. It projected collecting about $211 million in parking and concessions revenues.
"Between now and the time of my departure, it will be business as usual," DeCosta said in his statement.
Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this article.
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