Georgia explores challenges, benefits of Atlanta airport takeover

Posted August 23, 2018 10:49 a.m. EDT

ATLANTA -- State senators discussed this week how creating an airport authority to run Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport could bring a change in management amid a federal investigation into corruption at Atlanta City Hall -- and bring up the possibility of a second airport.

The state Senate study committee convened its first meeting Wednesday to look at the idea of creating an airport authority to manage Hartsfield-Jackson, which is currently run by the City of Atlanta.

Hartsfield-Jackson has "been a huge economic boon. ... However we're also very aware of the challenges that have seemingly hampered this facility for decades, and it all seems to center around a cloud of corruption and a political pay-to-play system," said study committee chairman State Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson.

He compared the idea of creating an airport authority to run Hartsfield-Jackson to the creation of the Georgia Ports Authority and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority.

"We do have examples of how authorities can work and how they are very successful as well," Jones said.

Speakers at the meeting included Michael Bell, who worked in finance for the Atlanta airport in the late 1970s and early '80s, chief financial officer for the city in the 1990s and wrote a 1980 dissertation determining an airport authority would be beneficial.

Bell said at the end of his term with the city, he had to testify at criminal trials about bribes being paid to city officials. "Back then, there was positive evidence, of course, of rampant bribery," Bell said.

Jones said he believes the best entity to manage an entity like the airport is an authority "that's an arm's length away from the political process and the political jockeying that does go on with an entity like this."

Robert Highsmith, outside counsel for the City of Atlanta, said "a large number of airports are in fact run by city and county elected officials and persons appointed by them" and added that the Atlanta airport "is in strong, capable hands."

The Senate study committee is also weighing how an airport authority could explore adding a second commercial airport for the region.

The City of Atlanta -- and Delta Air Lines, the dominant carrier in Atlanta -- both oppose a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson and have fought the creation of a second commercial airport in metro Atlanta.

"A second airport should be properly vetted, but the only way it can be properly vetted is through an organization that can look at it from a broader scope," Jones said. "Currently under our city-run structure, they're not going to be looking to find another location that might help alleviate some of the congestion that this airport has caused."

In meetings to come, the Senate study committee will tackle three main questions, according to Jones. First: Does it benefit the state? Federal regulation dictates that the airport's revenue cannot be diverted to other parts of government. But Jones said there should be more statewide input into management of the airport.

Second: Will the Federal Aviation Administration approve a transfer? In North Carolina, an attempt by the state to take over the Charlotte airport has been tied up in a legal battle for years, with the FAA saying it would only accept a change in management of the airport if there is a "legally definitive" resolution.

And third: How much would it cost to restructure the airport's bonds? "They're real concerns," said Jones, who added that he will call in bond experts to address the issue.

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore said one of her priorities is to ensure the city maintains control of the airport, and told the committee that city council recently passed legislation for independent procurement officers as part of its reform efforts.

"We are committed, in the midst of all that we're going through, to transparency, accountability and a check and balance of city government," Moore told the committee.

She also said she believes a discussion over a second airport "needs to happen, and I don't think an authority has to be the mechanism."

The last time Hartsfield-Jackson studied the idea of a second airport was in 2011 with funding from the FAA, when it considered eight potential sites and determined that none were financially feasible.

Moore also said she believes the state would need to compensate the city if it took over the airport.

"I'm sure there will be legal battles if we fail to be whole after they take it," Moore said. The value of the airport "is the value of the brand of the City of Atlanta. It is a part of our portfolio, and there is no reason why you would give up the most valuable part of your investment portfolio. We've invested in it."

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