Louis Miller jumped at chance to run Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport

By Maria Saporta and Ben Smith
Friday, September 17, 2010

As the new general manager of the world’s busiest airport, Louis Miller will earn less than many of his counterparts in the industry, including his predecessor — much less.

Miller’s $221,000 salary for managing day-to-day operations at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport will be $32,000 less than his former salary at Tampa International Airport. Tampa, the nation’s 27th-largest airport and the 80th-largest in the world, handles as much passenger traffic as just one of Hartsfield-Jackson’s concourses. Miller’s predecessor, Benjamin R. DeCosta, earned $285,000.

Also, unlike DeCosta and many other airport directors around the country, Miller, 62, will not have the protection of an employment contract. All three finalists for the Atlanta general manager’s position, including Miller, had contracts at their most recent airport jobs.

Miller was named airport chief Sept. 13. Some critics have questioned whether the lower salary offer and the lack of a contract may have deterred other prospective candidates from applying for the job.

“In my opinion and experience, having some kind of employment agreement or civil service status helps ensure that the best objective, least political advice goes to elected officials,” said Michael Bell, a professor of government finance at the Andrew Young School of Public Policy at Georgia State University. Bell is a former finance director for DeKalb County and the city of Atlanta.

Miller was one of three finalists for general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson. A former competitor, John D. Clark III, the current CEO of the Indianapolis Airport Authority, withdrew his name for consideration for the Atlanta job before DeCosta’s replacement was named. Clark, who works for the authority under a three-year contract, earns $270,000 with bonus opportunities of up to 30 percent in his current job.

In a prepared statement, Clark called the opportunity to have been considered for the Atlanta job “flattering.”

“The opportunity to be a part of shaping the future here in Indianapolis, however, is simply more appealing,” Clark said. “That, combined with my family’s decision that Indianapolis is a great community in which to live, ultimately drove my decision.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed defended his decision not to include a contract with the job offer during a press conference in which he announced Miller’s hiring.

“Nobody has an employment contract in my administration,” Reed said. “There’s a chance somebody in this field would pass on that.”

But Miller said he jumped at the chance to work in Atlanta.

“As far as not having a contract, to me that’s not a problem,” Miller said, acknowledging that he would be making less in Atlanta than he had been making in Tampa. “I’m very comfortable. It’s very fair and very reasonable.”

Miller was unemployed when he accepted the Atlanta job. The former Tampa airport director resigned in February after having had repeated conflicts with members of the airport authority.

As head of Tampa International Airport, Miller’s salary was $253,000.

Other airport directors earn considerably higher salaries. Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport CEO Jeff Fegan makes nearly $345,000 a year, according to records published by a local television news station in Dallas. Los Angeles World Airports General Manager Gina Marie Lindsey earns a $327,000 salary, according to published reports.

The city of Atlanta, working with search firm Heidrick & Struggles, conducted a national search for an airport general manager. At the end of the day, Reed had to choose between two finalists who didn’t have jobs. The other finalist was former Detroit airport director Lester W. Robinson, who was denied a contract renewal earlier this year by the facility’s airport authority.

Carol Tomé, chief financial officer of The Home Depot Inc., who chaired the search committee for Reed, said about the lack of a contract and the low compensation, “I don’t think it impacted the search process.” She added that “lifestyle got in the way with some of the candidates,” who did not want to uproot their families.

The rationale behind the $221,000 salary is that it matches exactly the salaries of the city of Atlanta’s new chief operating officer and new chief financial officer.

Tomé said Miller’s interest in coming to Atlanta was not about money or job security.

“He wanted this job,” Tomé said. “Of all the candidates, he was the most prepared, the most engaged and showed the most hunger and desire for the job.”

The news of Miller’s selection was warmly received by many in Atlanta.

AirTran Airways Inc., which hubs at Hartsfield-Jackson, is very pleased with Miller’s appointment, said Tad Hutcheson, AirTran’s vice president of marketing and sales. “We believe it’s going to set the stage for future AirTran growth in Atlanta.”

Hutcheson said that Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran had worked closely with Miller in Tampa. “We know him very well, and we are prepared to work with him in Atlanta,” Hutcheson said. “The mayor picked the right person for the job.”

The reaction from Delta Air Lines Inc. was also gracious, if not quite as enthusiastic. In a statement, Delta CEO Richard Anderson said the city has continued its tradition of choosing strong, visionary individuals to lead the airport.

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