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Business Casual: Atlanta’s Airport

No real surprise that the last legislative session produced an attempted state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

It’s a gem: the world’s busiest airport and arguably the single most valuable economic asset in the state. The airport has a $34.8-billion economic impact on Metro Atlanta alone and is the state’s largest employer, with 63,000 jobs. It is a Delta hub and connects to some 220 domestic and international cities.

Hartsfield-Jackson is a point of pride for all of Georgia. Why wouldn’t the state want to control it? It’s a cash cow and a prestige magnet. But it is Atlanta’s airport, and it should stay under Atlanta’s control.

Fortunately, Senate Bill 379, which would have given operation and control to the state, did not pass. The measure was sponsored by Sen. Burt Jones (R-Jackson).

The bill drew opposition, not surprisingly, from Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, as well as Gov. Nathan Deal.

What finally did pass was Senate Resolution 882, creating a Senate committee to study the creation of a state authority to run the airport. The group, appointed by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and headed by Jones, is scheduled to make its report by Dec. 1.

The grab-the-airport movement may lose some steam as a result of Cagle’s Republican gubernatorial primary defeat by Brian Kemp, but it seems to be one of those issues that pops up whenever politicians want to flex their muscles and throw a few punches at Atlanta.

The truth is, Hartsfield-Jackson is Atlanta’s airport, owned and operated by the city but available to all Georgians and others who need or want to fly somewhere. It should stay that way.

Atlanta had the determination and the foresight to create it, invest in it and make it into the world’s leading airport.

It has not been problem-free by any means; there have been abuses of the power that such a big operation generates. All the lucrative contracts and job opportunities attached to the airport have proven to be irresistible temptations for a few unscrupulous souls.

The current FBI investigation into City Hall corruption and the secret settlement reached between former Mayor Kasim Reed and Miguel Southwell, the airport manager he fired, certainly cast another shadow or two over the airport.

But, honestly, is there any reason to assume that the airport that Atlanta built would be better operated by the state? That there would be no state officials tempted by the opportunity to help themselves to some of the goodies?

The airport bears the names of two forward-thinking Atlanta mayors, William B. Hartsfield and Maynard H. Jackson, who were strong forces behind its establishment and growth.

It was created nearly a century ago – in 1925, on the site of the old Atlanta Speedway; it was originally called Candler Field, after another mayor, Coca-Cola Co. Founder Asa Candler, who owned the land and leased it, rent-free, to the city until Atlanta bought the property in 1929.

Hartsfield pushed to expand the airport and was behind construction of the 1961 terminal that really put Atlanta on the aviation map. Two decades later, Jackson pushed for construction of a newer terminal and made sure minority contractors were part of the process; the project was completed on time and under budget.

It has been Atlanta and Atlantans who have championed the airport and secured the funding to keep it moving forward. A 20-year capital improvement plan, ATLNext, unveiled in 2016, will keep the streak going.

Delta’s Bastian has called it the most successful airport in the world; it was the first ever to serve more than 100 million passengers in a single year.

Hartsfield-Jackson has grown and prospered under Atlanta’s leadership – imperfect as that leadership may have been at times. Why scrap the current method of governance in favor of a new one that would surely result in a loss of momentum with no guarantee that the ultimate results would be as good?

Some have suggested that racial politics may be behind the move to give the state control – you know, force black Atlanta Democrats to share the bounty. Sadly, race is rarely ever absent from Georgia political maneuverings.

But let’s let Atlanta fix whatever needs fixing at the airport – for the benefit of the entire state. The real test should be whether or not the airport is working. And it is.

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