By Alex Gailey and Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Dec. 14, 2018
John Selden, the newly appointed general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson, is running the Atlanta airport at a particularly critical time.
The state of Georgia has been intensifying exploratory efforts to take over the airport’s operations.
A federal investigation of airport contracts has also cast a cloud over Hartsfield-Jackson.
Lastly, the airport is undergoing a major $6 billion expansion — fulfilling a master plan that was approved at the same time that the city of Atlanta signed a 20-year lease with Delta Air Lines Inc. (NYSE: DAL), which agreed to keep its headquarters based in Atlanta for the duration of the lease.
Despite the turbulence, Selden is learning to navigate his way through the airport’s operations, with hopes of keeping Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the No. 1 slot, although he also recognizes the airport will eventually lose its title.
“I want to keep Hartsfield-Jackson at No. 1 for as long as possible, but I believe we will eventually lose it,” Selden said. “Airports in Instanbul and Beijing are outbuilding us. My goal is to try to do what we can to be the most efficient with the most passengers.”
Selden said the key to a positive future for Hartsfield-Jackson, regardless of its ranking, is to make it as efficient as possible through low costs, concourse and parking expansions, new concessions and customer experience improvements.
“The architect who designed this airport is a genius because we have the ability to keep expanding,” Selden said.
Across 4,700 acres of land between Fulton and Clayton counties, the airport was designed with concourses that can stretch on, making it relatively easy to build more gates.
But gate capacity is an issue that’s currently constraining the airport, especially the shortage of common use gates.
“We are somewhat gate-constrained. Our domestic gates are very tight right now, but we have this tremendous capital program going,” Selden said. “We are adding five gates on Concourse T that should be done by 2020.”
Selden said he would like to add more common use gates, which give the city maximum flexibility to work with airlines. The current lease provides for three common gates, and the airport currently has one.
Still, one of the strongest elements of Hartsfield-Jackson is its ability to loads passengers on planes for a low cost, and it incentivizes stronger partnerships with airlines.
Hartsfield-Jackson’s cheap enplanement cost is what strongly differentiates itself from airports across the country and makes Atlanta’s airport as efficient as it is, while serving more than 100 million travelers annually.
“This airport is very different than any other airport because we provide value,” Selden said. “We have the ability to load people on the plane – about $4.80 per passenger. In Denver, it’s over $10. We are by far one of the cheapest airports to operate out of in the U.S.”
Leading the world’s busiest airport
It’s been two months since Selden took the helm at the world’s busiest airport, marking a significant shift in focus at Hartsfield-Jackson.
The city of Atlanta considers the airport general manager to be one of the most important positions, so finding someone to fill the spot wasn’t easy.
The process to find Selden took several months, as Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms combed through several possible candidates, including other top airport executives.
Selden stood out in the crowd of qualified candidates because of his enthusiasm for Atlanta and willingness to stand as a leader in the community, but there was some concern he didn’t have enough experience to run the world’s busiest airport.
“If we had any concerns about him, we would not have pushed him forward,” said Carol Tomé, chief financial officer of Home Depot, who co-chaired the city’s search process. “No matter who it was going to be, it was going to be a step up [for them].”
He accredits his leadership style to his lengthy career in the Navy as a pilot, with assignments at the Pentagon and in Puerto Rico, as well as his aviation experience with American Airlines (NYSE: AAL).
His most recent stint was deputy manager at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Those experiences gave him the necessary skills to run an airport, he said.
“Hartsfield-Jackson is without question one of our city and state’s most valuable assets, with an annual economic impact of nearly $35 billion for metro Atlanta,” Bottoms said in a statement earlier this year. “It has allowed our city to become a gateway to the world and it serves as a critical cargo hub for North America. I am excited that we have identified someone with the qualifications and passion of John Selden to lead our airport into the future.”
Selden said he feels honored to have been picked. He was No. 2 at a major airport and is now No. 1 at the busiest airport in the world.
“I’m excited because we have a tremendous city here, and Hartsfield-Jackson is an amazing opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up in my life,” Selden said.
He was even willing to come without a contract, which was another contentious topic during the search process, since most U.S. airport commissioners have multi-year employment contracts..
The search committee was looking for a candidate that was willing to stay a while because the city has seen substantial turnover in the airport’s general manager position over the last few years.
Since 2010, the following leaders have served as Hartsfield-Jackson’s general manager — either as the permanent or interim executive or both: Ben DeCosta, Mario Diaz, Louis Miller, Miguel Southwell, Roosevelt Council and Balram Bheodari.
Atlanta had been paying its airport chiefs less to run Hartsfield-Jackson than many other major U.S. airports pay their general managers — about $220,000 for the previous three general managers.
But with Selden, who was paid $192,738 at JFK, the city put together a competitive compensation package to bring him to Atlanta at an annual salary of $280,000.
Selden said he doesn’t mind that there isn’t a contract and trusts the Bottoms administration.
“I had a meeting with Mayor Bottoms, and she impressed me with her leadership,” Selden said. “I couldn’t be happier to have been given this opportunity. Sometimes you want to attain goals in life and running Hartsfield-Jackson was one of mine.”
The state also is holding meetings to consider a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson, but Selden argues the city of Atlanta should remain in control of the airport. He believes the city has “done an amazing job.”
“We are the busiest and most efficient airport in the world under the leadership of the city of Atlanta,” Selden said.
When asked about the possibility of a second airport, Selden disagreed with the idea.
“That airport is going to have to compete with us,” Selden said. “The efficiency is here because we have one airport. The more airports you have, the less efficient you are.”
He added, “why would you build another airport if we can increase the volume of flights at Hartsfield-Jackson?”
Meanwhile, the federal investigation that has been looming over the city and the airport continues in the background, but Selden said he is focused on the future.
Because of the city and airport’s history of corruption, Selden believes his commitment to ethical leadership was one of the key reasons he was picked.
“The past is past. I wasn’t here. They are not investigating me. I’m a man of integrity, and I will keep my integrity. It is an honor for me to be here,” Selden said.
Improving customer experience
During his brief time as general manager, Selden has already noticed aspects of the airport he wants to improve for passengers.
The arrivals and departures, for example, are on the same level. This can lead to unnecessary congestion between passengers arriving and leaving the airport.
“There’s not a short-term solution,” Selden said. “But hopefully one day we can separate the two and have some of the departures downstairs.”
As a result of the federal investigation, roughly 10 concession package contracts are on pause, which encompasses more than 80 spaces at the airport. The current contracts will remain active until the investigation is over.
But with customer preferences constantly evolving, Selden said the airport’s food and retail experience need a refresh.
“We’re working on a program to help us decide what to do with the older contracts, but my goal is to keep those concessions fresh,” Selden said.
There are more than 300 concessions at the airport, which expects to top $1 billion in sales by the end of the year.
The airport’s concession program continues to grow at almost 5 percent above last year’s sales, according to airport data.
Selden said the procurement process needs to be “pure” for concession contracts, and that he intends to keep the process fair and unbiased.
“If we do that, we won’t have a problem here,” he added.
Simultaneously, Selden wants to expand Delta’s biometric technology available in the international terminal for check-in and boarding to the airport’s domestic terminals.
He wants to improve the parking experience through automated license plate readers, similar to Georgia’s Peach Pass system, and find a more efficient way to manage around transportation.
“I’m hopeful biometric technology will expand to the TSA checkpoint in the next five years,” Selden said. “Our wifi has significantly improved and the bathrooms are good. Hartsfield-Jackson is a nice way to come into Atlanta, but there are some things we can improve on for our customers.”