Talk of “second airport,” state control of Hartsfield starts in state Capitol

By Maggie Lee

Atlanta never stops crowing about having the world’s busiest airport — and it hasn’t been interested in a second one. But that “second airport” idea turned up several times in a state Capitol hearing called by legislators who are looking at the feasibility of a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson’s management.

The airport has some structural problems that have led to a political pay-to-play situation throughout the years, said state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, as he opened the hearing. It’s true that in the 90s, two city officials were convicted for dirty dealings in airport contracts. It’s true that city rules generally do put a lot of power mayors’ hands vis-a-vis Council. And it’s also true that the feds subpoenaed airport information from the city in 2016.

Art at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Credit: Kelly Jordan

‘Flight Paths,’ at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Credit: Kelly Jordan

But another reason why Jones is pushing for state control is that he sees it as the only way to explore the idea of a second major commercial airport somewhere in the state.

“Currently under a city-run structure, they’re not going to be looking to find another location that might help alleviate some of the congestion that this airport has caused,” said Jones.

He said he’s not knocking the pains that come with growth, but he said a lot of what’s driven metro Atlanta’s growth is people wanting to be close to the airport.

“I think as stewards of state, in looking at the best interests of state, a second airport should be properly vetted. The only way it could be properly vetted is through an organization that can look at it from a broader scope,” Jones said.

He said he thinks it would be more difficult to do any second airport via a Georgia authority with an assertive Atlanta left out. He pointed to Atlanta’s place on the list of opponents to Paulding County’s consideration of commercializing its airport. (Atlanta even sued over Paulding County’s efforts, pointing to a years-old alleged pledge that Paulding would not go commercial.)

Jones’ models are the state authorities that oversee ports and the Georgia World Congress Center. Both of those are overseen by boards that meet in public.

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore, along with many city hall folks, made the trip across the street to attend the hearing.

She said one of her No. 1 priorities is to make sure the airport stays with the city.

Moore acknowledges that the airport has had its problems. Indeed, in her Council career, she’s been at the forefront in Council on demanding government transparency. She pushed legislation to set up independent review of contracts worth more than $1 million, and she told the hearing she’s got a plan next week to talk to a Council committee about more compliance oversights.

After the hearing, she also said that it’s the city’s work over decades that has made the airport valuable and efficient.

“It is a part of our portfolio,” said Moore. “There’s no reason why you would give up the best part of your investment portfolio. We’ve invested in it and it is something that we should continue to control.”

Funds generated at the airport pretty much have to stay there — it’s not like your extra baggage fee is paying for an Atlanta police officer’s salary. But an alpha airport does help attract the businesses and residents who pay taxes in Atlanta and all the metro jurisdictions — and that’s what pays for government to run. In that way, the airport is the goose that lays the golden egg.

Moore said she doesn’t think discussion of a second airport requires the mechanism of a statewide authority.

The state Senate Study Committee on Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Operations and Authority Creation will continue to hold hearings before the legislative session begins in January. The answers to several questions are yet unclear, such as if and how the state could take over the airport’s debts or if the Federal Aviation Administration would approve any such move. Any legislation with a detailed proposal could be formally filed late this year.

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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