State's proposed take over of Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport misguided

By Maria Saporta

Seriously?

A proposal in the state legislature to take over Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport would be hilarious if it weren’t so darn scary.

Republican legislators, who usually argue for more local control and government closest to the people, are attempting a heavy-handed takeover of Georgia’s economic jewel – Atlanta’s airport.

Here is a quick history lesson dating back more than 90 years.

Hartsfield Jackson poster

Two Men, One Vision poster at Hartsfield- Jackson Atlanta International Airport welcoming arriving passengers. The poster is of Mayor William Hartsfield on the left and Mayor Maynard Jackson on the right (Photo by Maria Saporta)

It was the leaders of Atlanta – starting with Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield and continuing to Mayor Maynard Jackson and every mayor since then – who had the vision, approved the investment and shouldered the risk of building and developing the world’s busiest airport.

There have been multiple efforts by legislators over the years to swoop in and get control of Hartsfield-Jackson. That raw power play has never been successful – for good reasons.

But Senate Bill 131 is more dangerous than previous efforts – receiving a favorable, yet partisan, 34-22 vote in the Georgia Senate last week. The latest excuse is the ongoing federal investigation of corruption at Atlanta City Hall (which probably involves characters who took advantage of concession deals at the airport) under the leadership of former Mayor Kasim Reed.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian has spoken up strongly against a potential state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson, and he has accurately said there is no guarantee a state-run authority would be better ethically than the city.

“No question that the issues around corruption and some of the political challenges of managing a large municipal commercial operation require further improvement,” Bastian said last fall. “I’m not certain why the state is not going to have the same issues on that that the city has.”

Even Georgia Sen. Burt Jones (R-Jackson) acknowledged: “When you deal with people, you always will have issues to attend to.”

So let’s get down and dirty by looking at the proposed governance structure of the new Georgia Major Airport Authority.

The legislation says the authority shall consist of:

The Governor or designee;

The Lt. Governor or designee;

The Speaker of the House of Representatives or designee;

The commissioner of transportation or designee;

The commissioner of public safety or designee;

The commissioner of economic development or designee;

Two persons to be appointed by the Governor;

Two persons to be appointed by the Lt. Governor;

Two persons to be appointed by the Speaker of the House; and

Two persons to be appointed by the governing body of the county in which the majority of the airport is located (Clayton County).

What’s missing from this list?

The city of Atlanta – which owns Hartsfield-Jackson airport. The city would not even have one representative on the authority’s board. That’s not only insulting; it’s mean-spirited.

Here’s something else to consider.

Hartsfield-Jackson atrium

A photo of Hartsfield-Jackson’s atrium in the main terminal (Special: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport)

State leaders behind this takeover attempt argue they want to model the airport authority after the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and the Georgia Ports Authority. Admittedly, both have been well-run over the years.

But let’s look at their governance.

The Georgia World Congress Center Authority has 15 board members. All of them are white males with the exception of one African-American male and one white female.

The Georgia Ports Authority has 12 members on its board. They are all white males with the exception of one white woman.

Do either of these boards represent Georgia’s population (much less the Atlanta region) in terms of gender, race or ethnicity? Not even close. As a refresher, Georgia’s population totals 9.69 million people, of which 51.3 percent are female; 59.7 percent are white, 30.5 percent are black; 8.8 percent are Hispanics; and 9.1 percent are Asian or other.

Then there are the myriad of legal and financial obstacles the state would face in such a takeover.

A view of the new international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson airport (Special: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport)

During testimony before the Senate Transportation Committee, Doug Selby, a bond counsel for the city of Atlanta, accurately outlined a series of legal and financial obstacles of such a takeover.

A transfer would require approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. It also would require the state to come up with $3 billion in escrow to pay off outstanding bonds, and bondholders would have to approve the transfer.

Plus, the city of Atlanta most certainly would not be willing to sell or give the airport to the state. One legislator asked how the city would be compensated for the airport if the state took it over (maybe by eminent domain). I asked an insider to estimate the market value of the airport, and he said it was probably in the $25 billion range.

My former colleague, Jim Galloway of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said such a move would become Georgia’s version of Brexit, the seemingly endless move for Great Britain to exit the European Union.

Under the leadership of the Atlanta City Council and its president – Felicia Moore – coupled with efforts by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the city is taking significant measures to be more transparent and to clean up the city’s procurement process.

John Selden

John Selden, the new general manager of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Meanwhile, John Selden, the relatively new general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson airport, described the city-run airport from an outsider’s perspective.

“This airport…is the pinnacle of what airports strive to be throughout the world,” Selden said during the Senate committee hearing. “We are the envy of every domestic airport in this country. The city of Atlanta has built this incredible airport that is a jewel. We’ve built it piece by piece over 100 years. We are an amazing, efficient operation. The airport is far from broken. This is the Ferrari of airports.”

So Georgia leaders who are pushing the airport take over effort, please stop driving this wedge between the state and the city of Atlanta.

atlanta airport delta

A Delta jet at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

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.

35 replies
  1. Avatar
    Darkeyah Reuven says:

    Hmm. Does the State of GA have at least $25 billion to pay for the H-J Airport. No! You can't seize a private enterprise and pay off the debt with the revenue from the seized asset. These guys are nuts. How about these good ole' boy fix the Nuclear Plant Vogtle SCAM!Report

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      Chris says:

      How does any business own anything by this reasoning? Do Coke drinkers own Coke, after all they paid for it? The airport expansion was financed by borrow against existing assets and paid back out of expected revenue growth…just like airport bonds. Coke share holders are rewarded for their initial investment through and reinvestment in the company. The city used it's initial funds to develop the airport. It's creditworthiness backstopped the revenue bonds used to build it.Report

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    Bob Peppel says:

    Maynard Jackson started a wonderful program requiring minority participation in city funded projects. Unfortunately, that morphed into a program where only "approved" minorities were allowed to participate. The airport has been plagued with scandals ever since. There is no doubt in my mind that Angela Gittens was fired because she wouldn't play ball.Report

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    Julie Hairston says:

    Finally! The cost of this proposal is aired. No legal mechanism exists that allows the state to take control of an asset of this magnitude without fair compensation to its current owner, the City of Atlanta. No matter what anyone may feel about the city's leadership, seizure of the airport without fair (market value) compensation cannot possibly pass muster with any U.S. court.Report

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      Julie Hairston says:

      One more thing: As a taxpayer in both the City of Atlanta and the State of Georgia, it irks me that the substantial cost of litigating this legislative fit of pique on both sides is going to come out of my pocket on both sides of the question. What a futile waste of public money!Report

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      brainstar8 says:

      Thanks for referencing Atlanta's "ownership" of the airport. And I am not being snide. This is a phrase I've repeatedly heard and wondered, how does a city/municipality actually own an airport? From whom did they buy it? Seriously, this airport is a complicated entity. Think about it. That the people who run/bungle City Hall own the airport should, at the least, cause a collective outbreak of hives. To Google I go to pose the ownership question about who owns Hartsfield Jackson. I agree with you about the costs of the litigation.Report

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        AtlantaJ says:

        Thanks for referencing Georgia's "ownership" of the GWCC/Savannah Port. And I am not being snide. This is a phrase I've repeatedly heard and wondered, how does a state actually own a convention center/sea port? From whom did they buy it? Seriously, this airport is a complicated entity. Think about it. That the people who run/bungle State Government own the airport should, at the least, cause a collective outbreak of hives. To Google I go to pose the ownership question about who owns GWCC/Savannah Port. I agree with you about the costs of the litigation.Report

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          AtlantaJ says:

          Ugh: correction:
          Thanks for referencing Georgia's "ownership" of the GWCC/Savannah Port. And I am not being snide. This is a phrase I've repeatedly heard and wondered, how does a state actually own a convention center/sea port? From whom did they buy it? Seriously, the GWCC/Savannah Port is a complicated entity. Think about it. That the people who run/bungle State Government own the GWCC/Savannah Port should, at the least, cause a collective outbreak of hives. To Google I go to pose the ownership question about who owns GWCC/Savannah Port. I agree with you about the costs of the litigation.Report

          Reply
  4. Avatar
    Tom Woodward says:

    Keep politics and state govt. away from Atlanta's airport! We always breathe a sigh of relief when the GA General Assembly's annual legislative session is over for the year!Report

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    Anna says:

    Maria, missing from your article's 'historical recap' is your decades of reporting about the corruption at the airport – vendor contracts issued improperly, Corey lawsuits that proved collusion in the bidding process, Franklin's ex-husband (what a mess), Jackson and Hartsfield family members 'retirement plans' stewed into concession contract deals, C.R. "Ronnie" Thornton raising money for Campbell to save his dirt contract, in 1974 Ira Jackson and Dan Paradies were convicted on bribery charges, former City Council members Fowlkes, Campbell, Arrington – all accused of taking bribes, and on and on and on… This airport has been mired in corruption almost from inception, I know your memory is NOT that short. 90% of airports in the world are run by authorities – there might be a good reason for that. My memory is much longer and seems more complete.Report

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      atlman says:

      90% of the airports are run by authorities. But 100% of airports are run by the bodies that bought the land, paid for their construction and pay for their ongoing maintenance. If the state wants the airport it is going to have to pay $25 billion for the land and assets, $3 billion for the bonds, property taxes and the annual ongoing maintenance. The state thinks that they are somehow going to be able to contrive a deal where they get to manage the airport while the city merely gets the revenue. Honestly that is never going to happen.

      If the state wanted an authority-run airport they should have built one themselves.Report

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        JWK57 says:

        I am sure the State can come up with the 30+Billion needed to secure the airport in an equitable fashion. They will build tolls all around the Atlanta metro and legislative a usage tax for anyone who flies through HJI. Equitable meaning that everyone pays for the asset except the folks who live down every "pig path" in the State!!!Report

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    brainstar8 says:

    Maria, Maria. Is it that you want to support what you see as a dream of the Old Atlanta – the one of spirit, soul and a distinctive personality? That is gone, vaporized into on-going corruption at City Hall and the City elected officials' lack of attention to detail of schools, infrastructure, safety, community, and so on. We host a Super Bowl. So what?

    If we were not leaving the City (and yes, we have lived for decades in the City), we would be depressed. Had it not been in recent years for visionaries like Zell Miller and Nathan Deal, neither of whom I voted for, Atlanta would be another Detroit or Baltimore. Also, thank the Chamber of Commerce and the business power structure led by Central Atlanta Progress for the reputation that Atlanta has gained. Let's also do our best to recall the Bill Campbells, Kasim Reeds and, I would add, the sitting mayor. They are not the ones who should be emulated. Bottoms was way too close to Reed and probably expected to cover his messes and proceed with her own – in secret, of course.

    Yes, the State needs to take over the airport. And, no – voters never need to elect a one-trick-pony Stacey Abrams as governor. She lies, and people who have been paying attention know this. Who would want to see the likes of her making decisions about the airport?Report

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      ATLBooster says:

      Atlanta is another Detroit or Baltimore. In fact, Detroit has some respectability since everyone loves a comeback story. Atlanta is just a disaster and if you leave and then come back, you can see the rot everywhere. Sure, some places like Midtown look better, but the quality of jobs created and the stock of new people here are bottom of the list. After all who wants high crime and long commute? People with no other options. And that's what ATL attracts by and large now.Report

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    brainstar8 says:

    One more thing: people who do not live in the City limits of Atlanta should probably hesitate before they comment. Believe me, it's a different perspective for those of us who do, compared to residents of Marietta, Milton and others who have created their own little cities. And what's really a lark is also living in DeKalb County AND the City of ATL. But DeKalb's another sad story that deserves its own space.Report

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    OG Atl says:

    There's a real strange disconnect in this article Maria. You write "State leaders behind this takeover attempt argue they want to model the airport authority after the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and the Georgia Ports Authority. Admittedly, both have been well-run over the years." and then you go on to comment about the racial and gender mix pf the boards as if that is an important aspect to this story. If it's "well-run" then it's "well-run" and leave the tired old failed cliches of identity politics out of the story. No where else in your story do you actually prove the case the airport is "well-run" (other than quoting a very self-serving John Selden whose job depends on status quo) which should be the only metric of concern to the taxpayers. The fact it has been one big jobs program and massive patronage engine along with decades of corrupt practice should by its very nature warrant a reasonable and tempered analysis. This article is not that, silly Brexit comparisons aside.Report

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      JWK57 says:

      Interesting point being raised. Why doesn't the State build and manage their own airport? Might be a good idea to get their feet wet before they take on the largest and most successful airport in the World. It has been said more than once that the State needs another airport to handle/off-load some of the heavy traffic. Gwinnett County is mentioned…plenty of cheap land and some mass transit! It's so easy to solve the problems of the World if we can all "just get along".
      HAHAHA. That would involve raising revenue from areas that Republicans can't stomach…their own constituents in this State. Speaking of spectacular Republican led BOONDOGGLES, take a good look at the financing model of Sun Trust Park in Cobb. I wonder how long it will be before that State has to bail out the county?Report

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    William James Brotherton says:

    Wow, what a fascinating article and the replies are just as good! I grew up in Atlanta when it was a small town and watched as the Hartsfield Airport grew and grew as Atlanta morphed into a city. Somehow, Atlanta has avoided becoming another Detroit or Baltimore, thank goodness, but it has always been an open secret that once Maynard Jackson and his cronies took office that the corruption doors were flung wide open. Just what is wrong with an airport authority operated by the state. Indeed, the comments about the Georgia Ports Authority and the World Congress Center being well-run would seem to support that it's time for the state to do something similar with the Atlanta airport.Report

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      atlman says:

      No. The state paid for the GPA and GWCC with their own funds. They paid the construction, maintenance costs, property taxes and bond fees. They built it, they own it, they deserve the right to run it. The state did not build or pay for Hartsfield.

      Anyway, this isn't going to succeed. The city of Atlanta will tie this up in federal courts until the GOPers – Kemp, Trump etc. – are out of office. If a Democrat is president in 2020, there is no way the FAA would approve the takeover, just as the FAA did not approve the Charlotte takeover. And a Democratic legislature will just repeal this bill. So no. Give up this pipe dream. It will never happen.Report

      Reply
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    AtlantaJ says:

    You may have also heard Renee Unterman's catchy phrase, "ATL, this is not your ATM anymore". It's not too difficult to discern that she wants Hartsfield/Jackson to be the State of Georgia's "ATM" instead.Report

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    Pablo says:

    Here are a few facts. All but a small portion of the airport is in Clayton county. Over the years, the City of Atlanta has ignored the interests of Clayton County and it's residents as it has sought to expand. Clayton county families have been uprooted and forced to move to make way for "progress". Others families have been left to endure the constant noise of airplanes overhead. Plans hailed as tremendous economic development projects like Airport City pay no taxes to Clayton county because the City of Atlanta owns them or they put together financing schemes which effectively abate property taxes. The county's efforts to insure it receives it's fair share of fees, permits and taxes from the vendors at the airport have been vigorously opposed by the City of Atlanta. These are just a few things that have been left out of the dialogue. The bill passed by the Senate proposes to include two representatives from Clayton county on the authority's board. That's two more voices than we have now in overseeing the operation of a business that resides in our county. The bill also allows the opportunity to Clayton county to expand and be properly compensated for the governmental services it provides to the airport. It seems to me, Clayton county taxpayers may benefit from state control. I hope my representatives support the takeover.Report

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      atlman says:

      Clayton County. The place whose school board lost its accreditation TWICE within 15 years. Tell me. Where would Clayton County's economy be right now without Hartsfield? I am listening.Report

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        Pablo says:

        Surely you are not holding up the Atlanta school system as the model for good governance. No one went to jail for cheating on tests in Clayton. Nor have we had the level of public corruption we have seen and continue to see in the City of Atlanta and at the airport. Moreover, if the accrediting agency had applied the same standard, Atlanta would have and should lost its accreditation. Let's be clear, Delta, with 80% of the flights, and the other airlines run and fund the airport. Atlanta just helps them do what they want to do. Clayton, like the State of Georgia, benefits from the airport, but it also gets the problems. By offering to put Clayton on the governing board, the state shows some recognition of that fact. The City of Atlanta never has…Report

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    George Wilson says:

    This plan is not well thought out and the comments have been excellent.Perhaps a joint partnership between the city and the state would be the ideal.Then they could keep watch over each otherReport

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      atlman says:

      Nope. No joint partnerships between something that one entity has invested over $100 billion dollars in property taxes, maintenance, land acquisition and construction costs over 90 years and another entity that hasn't contributed a dime. Or how about this? Joint partnership over Hartsfield in return for joint partnerships with the Georgia Ports Authority and the Georgia World Congress Center. Because without Hartsfield, the state of Georgia would have a smaller population and lesser economy than Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi which means that there would be no GPA and GWCC to begin with. Sound fair?

      Or how about this. The state of Georgia start an airport authority that manages every airport in the state. Albany. Columbus. Savannah. Macon. Athens etc. Instead of just wanting to grab control of the one airport in the state that makes more money than it loses. And the smaller ones in places like DeKalb and Valdosta.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airports_in_Georgia_(U.S._state)

      And how about the state build its own airport and manage that airport itself. They can build it anywhere they want including in Renee Unterman's backyard. Assumng the locals agree because the last attempt to build an airport in Gwinnett was torpedoed by NIMBY types.

      I dislike Emanuel Jones but he had one great comment to the effect of if the state gets away with taking over Hartsfield today, then it is going to be open season on city and county owned assets in Republican areas when the Democrats take back control of the state tomorrow.Report

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    ATLBooster says:

    Like most else in this odd town, this comes down to race and everyone knows it. Like the other fellow, if you can leave Atlanta and move to another city, Atlanta's race problems become so apparent. Other cities have problems, but they can move on things. Everything here from traffic to the airport to really anything is seen from a racial perspective. There are simply better towns and places to live as this one chokes on race. The state should not only take over the airport but the entire town before the point of no return happens, aka another recession.Report

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      Chris says:

      I've lived all over the country and abroad. The city has problems but I wouldn't say lack of "movement" is one of them. Indeed, I would argue that the city moves too quickly. It gets some stuff right like 6 runways and 200 gates at the airport, building MARTA, the Olympics, the Beltline, but also makes lot's of mistakes: civic center, the streetcar, the Gultch. Most cities I've lived in, all economically prosperous and attractive places to live, would subject any proposed project to withering review and citizen choke points such that it took forever to get something done. In any case, the city is doing very well, growing in population, attracting business, repairing its infrastructure. The idea of a state takeover is absurd and ugly.Report

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        ATLBooster says:

        Atlanta is a crime infested, traffic clogged, low wage mess. People harp on Los Angeles for the same reasons. Except it's lowered it crime rate, beat it's gang problem and is hosting an Olympics. Atlanta is still dealing with all this plus the fallout from suburb decimation that has left it a tale of two cities. If I could leave this metro today, you'd see my puff of smoke out of here on this very post.Report

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        ATLBooster says:

        Another issue here is that the people of the city of Atlanta don't use the airport. The metro population uses it because they can afford it. You would see the airport shrivel and flat out fall if an Airport in, say Cumming, were built. Atlanta knows this and there is some reason they keep the lock on the airport since people with money sure as hell aren't fond of Atlanta and by and large won't live or shop there.Report

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  14. Avatar
    Chris says:

    I have no problem with the state buying the airport from the city at the market price. For that matter, I'm happy to sell it. Many airports are privately owned. At 25B, I believe that would be ~50K for every man woman and child in the city of Atlanta. The interest alone would could fund the entire operating budget. They could collect zero taxes forever and have money left over.Report

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