By Maria Saporta
Talk about a great first day on the job.
Louis Miller started his new job as general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Monday morning.
And almost at the exact same time, the news came out that Southwest Airlines had entered into “a definitive merger agreement” to buy AirTran Airways.
For years and years and years, those who favored increased competition at Hartsfield-Jackson have been hoping to figure out how to lure Southwest to Atlanta.
But hometown Delta Air Lines understandably tried to prevent that from happening by keeping as much control as they could on as many gates at Hartsfield-Jackson as possible.
In fact, the new seven-year lease agreement between the City of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson and Delta pretty much guaranteed that the Atlanta-based airline would retain control of all its current gates and that few of the other gates at the airport would be made available to new competitors.
AirTran, a low-cost carrier, had been fighting on Delta’s turf from the days it was called ValuJet. The last thing Delta wanted was another discount carrier entering the market and creating competitive pressure for lower fares.
In fact, that was part of the reason why there had been tension between former Hartsfield-Jackson General Manager Ben DeCosta and Delta. DeCosta had been pushing for more flexible use of the gates that would have allowed more competition while Delta wanted to keep that flexibility to a minimum. Delta won that one.
But interestingly enough, when AirTran was able to also get the same seven-year lease agreement with control of about 32 gates, all of a sudden the Orlando-based carrier became a much more attractive acquisition option for Southwest.
AirTran signed that seven-year lease the same that Louis Miller, who had been the general manager of the Tampa airport, was announced as Mayor Kasim Reed’s top choice for the Hartsfield-Jackson job.
At the press conference on Monday, Sept. 13, it was clear that Miller was a fan of competition.
“I think increased and enhanced competition is good,” Miller said, quickly adding that Delta certainly was the “most important” airline serving Hartsfield-Jackson. That said, Miller continued: “You have to treat all your tenants the same…. Competition is a good thing. You want to bring in as much competition as one possibly can.”
He went on to say that the Tampa airport had strong relationships with Delta, AirTran and Southwest. “I have good relationships with all the airlines,” Miller said. He even mentioned Gary Kelly, Southwest Airlines’ chairman, president and CEO, by name.
“You need to talk to everybody,” Miller said.
At that same press conference, Delta executive Harold Bevis had kind words to say about Miller. “He’ll do a great job,” Bevis said. “Louis has been just a super airport operator wherever he’s been regardless of whether Delta was the largest carrier or not.”
Of course, those comments predated Monday’s news that Southwest was acquiring AirTran and that if the merger went through, Dallas-based Southwest would immediately become the second largest carrier serving Hartsfield-Jackson. That guarantees that vigorous competition will be in full force at Atlanta’s airport.
As one observer half-jokingly said Monday morning: “The Miller man has made momentous magic on his first morning at work.”
Welcome to Atlanta Louis Miller.