Delta, Andrew Young and others deserve credit for Atlanta’s global growth
By Maria Saporta
As a journalist for more than four decades, I’ve enjoyed a unique perspective of how Atlanta developed into an international city – thanks largely to the presence of former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, Delta Air Lines, the Coca-Cola Co. and forward-looking business community.
Atlanta’s evolution as a global center for business came into focus on March 11, when Delta CEO Ed Bastian hosted a surprise birthday celebration for Young (a day before his 89th birthday) at the company’s headquarters.
“I don’t know of another individual who has had more of an impact on our company than Andrew Young.” Bastian said before announcing Delta was renaming one of its key buildings on campus in Young’s honor, and that the airline was awarding $1 million to the Andrew J. Young Foundation.
The award capsulizes the relationship between Delta and Atlanta – one that began on March 1, 1941 – 80 years ago – when Delta moved its headquarters to Atlanta from Monroe, La.
Delta came largely because Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield (who served as mayor from 1937 to 1941 and again from 1942 to 1962) led the effort for Atlanta to become a center for aviation and supported the city’s efforts to lease and then buy the Candler Speedway’s 287 acres and turn that into Atlanta’s first airport.
Interestingly enough, Delta was not the first airline to offer international flights out of Atlanta – as this story tells us.
Mayor Hartsfield passed away on Feb. 22, 1971, and one week later (on what would have been his 81st birthday), the airport was renamed in his honor. The name was changed again on July 1 to Hartsfield Atlanta InternationalAirport – the same day Eastern Airlines began flying to Mexico and Jamaica – Atlanta’s first international service.
Truth be known, Delta resisted becoming an international airline.
The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1970s was pushing to have Atlanta be designated a transatlantic gateway. But the late Roy Cooper, head of economic development for the Atlanta Chamber, told me Delta had lobbied against that designation. At the time, Delta’s most profitable route was Atlanta-New York, where it was flying European-bound passengers. If Atlanta became a transatlantic gateway, that would hurt its Atlanta-New York business.
Young, who was then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter, said Delta’s CEO told him: “Look, we’re not thinking international. We’re a regional airline with a few national routes. And that’s where we intend to stay.”
Young shared that story during an exclusive interview with him and Bastian after the surprise birthday ceremony.
The stars lined up for Atlanta to become a transatlantic gateway. Carter was president; Young was ambassador to the United Nations. Despite Delta’s opposition, the Atlanta business community was behind the effort as was then-Gov. George Busbee, who joined Delta’s board from 1983 after his second term as governor.
But Delta quickly got on board. It began flying to London in 1978 and to Frankfurt in 1979 – adding numerous Atlanta-European destinations in the 1980s. Coincidentally, Young – once referred to as the only U.S. mayor with a foreign policy – served as Atlanta’s mayor from 1982 to 1990.
I’ve often said I was lucky to be covering international business (for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) when Young was mayor, when Delta was evolving as an international carrier and when the AJC had money.
One of my favorite memories was in April 1985, three weeks after Delta’s inaugural direct flight to Paris on April 1. A delegation of more than 120 Atlantans, led by Young and then Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, went to drum up business ties between Georgia and France.
When we arrived in Paris and held a press conference with French journalists, Young was asked whether he spoke French. “I understand French is a language you have to learn in bed, and my wife doesn’t speak French,” Young said in what has to be one of the greatest responses I’ve ever heard.
Four years later, then-Delta CEO Ron Allen was leading an Atlanta Chamber delegation to the Soviet Union, which was just beginning to open up to the world. We went to Moscow and Tbilisi, Georgia to boost economic ties, and the Atlanta Chamber even set up an office in Tbilisi.
During that trip, Mayor Young was busy meeting with members of the International Olympic Committee urging them to support Atlanta’s long-shot bid to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Young had fallen under the spell of Billy Payne, who led the effort for Atlanta to host the Olympics.
“Andy and I traveled the world,” Payne recalled at the birthday celebration. “In a span of three years. I went to 100 countries, often with Andy at my side, always ready to tell the story of Atlanta of why Atlanta was different than any other city in the United States… Together with his personal integrity and charisma, that won the Games for Atlanta in an overwhelming upset.”
By that time, Delta also had caught the international bug. In 1991, Delta purchased nearly all of Pan Am’s transatlantic routes and truly became a global carrier.
Thousands of companies around the world began investing in Atlanta and Georgia – connected by Delta and international carriers flying into Hartsfield (now Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport). Atlanta’s profile only grew when the city hosted the 1996 Olympics.
By that time, Young had completed his two terms as mayor. He served as co-chair of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG); Young was chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber during the Olympics. And he had joined Delta’s board– serving from 1994 to 2004 – when Atlanta played a prominent role on the global stage.
Young worked from inside the Delta organization to get the airline to start direct flights to Africa as a way to make Atlanta a gateway to the African continent.
Even after stepping down as a director, Young kept challenging Delta to think more expansively.
“No one better connects the world than Andy Young,” Bastian said during the ceremonial remarks. “His vision for us all is so broad. The board was possibly a little myopic. We owe you a huge debt of gratitude.”
During the interview, Bastian said he gives Young credit for pushing the company. “He continues to push my boundaries,” Bastian said. “And he continues to remind me of places that we have to enter into. He’s a visionary.”
Delta has had a long tradition of building close ties with leaders from Atlanta – its home and its major business hub. After serving two terms as mayor (2002 to 2010), Shirly Franklin was named to Delta’s board in July 2011 – serving until 2017, when she had reached its retirement age.
So, will Delta add other prominent Atlantans to its board (currently retired Home Depot CEO Frank Blake serves as Delta’s chair and Kathy Waller, retired chief financial officer of the Coca-Cola Co. is a director).
“Over time, absolutely. We’ve got a long history of that,” Bastian answered. “We realize the importance we have in this community. This is our hometown. Despite how big Delta is, 50 percent of our customers touch Atlanta on some point of their journey.”
Bastian went on to say how it important it was to Delta for people to have that local knowledge and the importance of the relationship between Atlanta and Delta.
Then Bastian went back in time to when Delta moved to Atlanta and Mayor Hartsfield saw the potential of Atlanta’s future as an aviation hub.
“At that time, Atlanta and Birmingham were roughly the same size,” Bastian said. “Hartsfield had foresight to move to get the land and look at Atlanta today versus Birmingham. See the power of foresight and vision of leaders.”
In short, leadership matters – as William Hartsfield, Andrew Young, Shirley Franklin, Ed Bastian, George Busbee, Ron Allen, among others – have shown us.
Note to readers: Kelly Jordan shares his photos from the March 11 event at Delta.