As Atlanta wrestles with awarding airport concessions, it’s time to revisit an idea
By Guest Columnist GEORGE BERRY, former aviation commissioner for the City of Atlanta, former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism and retired executive of Cousins Properties
It is my guess that shortly after signing a lease/purchase agreement for the Candler Field property in l925, the Mayor of Atlanta or a member of the Board of Alderman was approached by a constituent hoping to establish a hot dog stand at the new facility.
In the decades since, airport concessions have been the bane of airport managers and have been tainted by corruption both real and implied.
As a former Commissioner of Aviation (now called “General Manager”) responsible for Atlanta’s airport, I found it incredible that I was pressured to spend more time on who was selling hamburgers or knickknacks or magazines than designing and implementing plans to insure the future of our most critical economic asset.
When our existing terminal was being planned in the late l970’s I was determined, naively as it turned out, to remove concession activities from the political arena.
Our idea was to choose a “Principal Concessionaire” chosen by a strictly defined bid process and to whom we would turn over all the designated concession space, then over 100,000 square feet, to this firm to be managed without political interference for a 10-year period.
In order to insure that we were dealing with firms with the expertise, financial strength and experience to handle this, we prequalified five national companies which included some of the foremost concession operators in the country.
We also specified that they were free to choose sub-concessionaires as they wished but that 20 percent of overall gross volume had to be accounted for by minority owned firms.
We also had specifications to insure adequate service levels and to insure that a wide range of concession services were made available in all areas of the terminal. The winning bid guaranteed a substantial annual income to the airport which, as I remember was much more than we expected but which would likely look small when compared to the current environment.
Our elation at the success of this process was short lived. Sub-concessionaires immediately started campaigns to obtain more space and lower rental rates. Also, new sub-concessionaires wanted in. And they were politically active people with relationships with members of the City Council.
The Principal Concessionaire either did not believe that he was truly free to act without political interference or concluded that it was better to “go along to get along” than to resist such political pressures.
In short, the “Principal Concessionaire” concept was not allowed to work as designed.
Before long, it became business as usual and at the end of the 10-year agreement concession policy devolved back on the old system of individually awarded contracts by the Mayor and Council.
Airport officials can put up a brave argument that this process does not involve politics but that is basically the same as contending that water does not run downhill. Anytime a public body awards financial privileges based on subjective criteria the scent of corruption will always be in the air.
Even though it did not work as designed, the concept of removing direct concessionaire awards and management from city political control still needs to be considered. It can take several forms. If not the Principal Concessionaire concept, then perhaps letting the airlines award and manage the concessions within their leased space with a corresponding increase in their rental rates.
But then again, maybe I am just still dreaming of being an airport manager without having to deal almost hourly with concession issues.