Brain drain at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport as key executives fly away

By Ben Smith and Maria Saporta
Friday, August 27, 2010

The world’s busiest airport needs more than a new general manager. It needs to replace a sizable chunk of its management team, too.

Within the past year, six of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s top 20 executives, including former General Manager Benjamin R. DeCosta, have left. Most appear to have moved on to better opportunities.

Airport officials announced Aug. 21 that Jeff Pearse, the airport’s marketing and business development director, is stepping down to become deputy director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Pearse follows former Hartsfield-Jackson Deputy General Manager Mario Diaz, who left in April to become director of the city of Houston’s airport system.

Pearse also follows Dan Molloy, the Atlanta airport’s former assistant general manager for capital development. Molloy has joined former Hartsfield-Jackson chief engineer Frank Rucker in the United Arab Emirates, where both former Atlanta airport executives are leading the construction of a new airport in Abu Dhabi.

In March, former Hartsfield-Jackson concessions director John Cugasi left the airport to head a business venture providing retail services to airports across the country.

The departures have prompted some former and current local government officials and business leaders to fret that the airport could be suffering an executive exodus at a critical period in Hartsfield-Jackson’s development.

“The brain drain,” said former Hartsfield-Jackson General Manager Angela Gittens, “that is concerning.”

In an e-mail to Atlanta Business Chronicle, Gittens suggested that the current management vacuum is a result of “the long duration between when Ben announced his retirement and the time frame for setting up the search process.”

That, Gittens said, and possibly the turnover at Atlanta City Hall.

“Perhaps it was just as much due to the fact that there was a new mayor and top people did not know where they stood under the new administration,” Gittens said.

DeCosta announced his retirement in January, more than six months before his contract expired.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is expected to name the new general manager before the end of next week.

That person and the team he assembles face the monumental task of, among other things, overseeing the completion of a new international terminal and stabilizing the airport’s finances. That includes selling more than $600 million in bonds by the end of the year.

The task will go to one of three finalists, two of whom are currently unemployed and none of whom has experience managing an airport the size of Hartsfield-Jackson.

The candidates are John D. Clark III, current executive director and CEO of the Indianapolis Airport Authority; Lester W. Robinson, former CEO of the Wayne County Airport Authority, which oversees the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport; and Louis E. Miller, former executive director of Tampa International Airport.

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie S. Andolino was on the original list of three finalists for the Hartsfield-Jackson general manager job.

Sources close to the process said Andolino backed out last week. She refused to comment on the matter.

Some business and former political leaders were hoping DeCosta’s replacement would have experience managing an airport of similar size and as busy as Hartsfield-Jackson. Andolino, some said, might have fit the bill.

Andolino oversees O’Hare International Airport and Chicago Midway International Airport.

O’Hare handles roughly 69 million passengers a year and is the world’s second-busiest airport, behind Hartsfield-Jackson.

Hartsfield-Jackson handles 88 million passengers a year. The Detroit airport handles between half and a third of that volume of traffic. The Tampa and Indianapolis airports handle less than one-tenth of the amount of passenger traffic as Hartsfield-Jackson.

Gittens, among others, said such statistics are not the most important factor in selecting a new general manager.

“I know them all and any one of them could do a fine job,” Gittens stated. “They all have experience with large, complex airports and all are knowledgeable about international aviation issues.”

Sources familiar with the search process say Robinson is Delta Air Lines Inc.’s favored choice for the job, while AirTran Airways Inc. is said to prefer Clark. Neither airline would comment about a preference.

“For decades, Delta has enjoyed a productive partnership with the city and the management of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport,” said Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter in a prepared statement. “The city has chosen strong, visionary individuals to lead the airport in years past, and we trust Mayor Reed and the city council to continue this tradition.”

Tad Hutcheson, AirTran’s vice president of marketing and sales, said, “we hope that Mayor Reed chooses the best candidate possible to run Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. It is a key time in the life of the airport. This is going to be one of the most critical decisions in Mayor Reed’s term as mayor.”

“The good news is that the management team in Atlanta is solid, and it can withstand this type of turnover,” Hutcheson said. “I’m sure there will be a mix of internal promotions and external hires going forward. Atlanta is very efficient and cost-effective compared to other airports.”

However, Metro Atlanta Chamber President Sam Williams said, “I would hate to see us do a total turnover of all the major people. There are critical issues involved, such as finishing the international terminal. Continuity in a transition is always an important thing.”

“I would hope that in the sports vernacular, that there is a strong bench of supporting senior managers to help whomever the new commissioner is,” Williams said.

The new jobs landed by the former Hartsfield-Jackson executives show how strong that bench was under DeCosta, Williams said.

“It … shows the respect that a lot of other airports have for Hartsfield-Jackson because they’re hiring our people,” Williams said.

Reach Ben Smith at [email protected] Reach Maria Saporta at [email protected]

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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