By Guest Columnist BEN DECOSTA, former aviation general manager of ATL, 1998-2010
By a 5 to 4 vote, a Senate study committee proposed a hostile takeover of the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) from those who built it over the past 40 years as the premier magnet for global businesses, as a $60 billion regional economic engine and as the door for millions of travelers from around the world to visit Atlanta and America.
ATL is the world’s busiest and most efficient airport, serving 107 million passengers with non-stop service to more than 150 U.S. and 75 international destinations. As the largest Georgia employer, ATL employs 63,000 individuals in good jobs. Why mess with it and break what’s not broke?
The Senate focused on investigations and crime, but not on tailored solutions to what they saw as the problem. Instead, they used the current scandals hatched in the past city administrations as their reason for the takeover. Unfortunately, the senators have no understanding of airport regulations, policies, management or operations, and failed to explore them sufficiently to ensure they were doing what was right for our region. No one who conducted this due diligence would recommend their risky takeover bill.
These study committee senators would grab the well-run city airport, make it part of the state government, and hand it to a bureaucratic and complicated authority network of political appointees who have no knowledge, experience or capacity to perform the vital leadership functions for the world’s busiest airport.
Who among them would learn and know enough in such complex areas and system of systems as terminal building management, baggage systems, explosive detection and evolving threats, self-service, improvements in non-aeronautical revenue, reduced airline costs per enplaned passengers, airfield design, reduced wait times, facial recognition system and emerging technologies, noise mitigation, successful design and construction in operational facilities, perimeter security, airport management systems?
It’s easy to simplify what you don’t understand and underestimate the efforts of success.
Atlanta has kept the airport growing and has enhanced operations and performance year after year throughout each of Atlanta’s mayoral administrations, in spite of some wrong doing by a few bad apples. For example, Hartsfield-Jackson has received the award for the most efficient airport in the world for the last 15 years from Air Transport Research Society and has been recognized for its superior customer service by a survey of the largest airports conducted by The Wall Street Journal.
A resilient institution, ATL continues to grow, adapt, be nimble and support our airlines’ growth and profitability despite skullduggery by a few. Takeover is not medicine; it will poison the environment for success by fragmenting the smooth oversight of the airport. Keep it simple.
It would take years for a new extended board to become educated so members could make the same kind of committed contribution as provided by the Atlanta City Hall team and the other departments of the government. A transition to an authority would be very disruptive to ATL and the other departments that provide needed services (e.g. police and fire, information technology, finance, etc.).
The proposal would interfere and disrupt a mature complex and complicated enterprise. Focused attention is required to sustain this immensely-complex and time-sensitive operation, and maintain a vast and diverse network of relationships, and make collaborative decisions with a large segment of stakeholders.
To comply with federal regulations, the management of the airport coordinates with the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Patrol, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, CDC, Atlanta police and fire to keep the airport safe and to ensure its security, to name a few.
A major change in governance risks the financial stability of the airport enterprise. The leadership and management have run the airport as a successful business. The airport enterprise is self-supporting – financing its capital program for capacity and growth from revenues. ATL has a high bond rating because it is well run today, and has a debt service coverage ratio that supports the capital investment that provides facilities for our airlines and their passengers. The current aviation general manager, his deputies and aviation professionals are knowledgeable, effective experts and decision-makers.
The problem sought to be solved by the Senate study committee has been solved.
Ongoing law enforcement is doing its job in the investigations members cited. The City of Atlanta is responding effectively with legislations and programs to protect ATL and the other critical functions of the city from wrong-doing. The city has created a compliance officer, strengthened the ethics and audit functions as well as an independent procurement review office.
The bad apples are being brought to justice. There is no need to create the chaos that would occur from a protracted fight in the federal courts – contributing to uncertainty and instability at ATL.
The distraction, challenges, changes, complexity and uncertainty of a state authority takeover is unnecessary and puts ATL success at great risk.
Don’t do it.