Battle Over Second Atlanta Airport

Heats Up

Since I wrote about the plan to bring commercial airline service to tiny Paulding County Airport (northwest of Atlanta) in the November issue, the battle over whether this will be allowed has escalated. Six residents who filed a lawsuit opposing commercial service agreed to a settlement last month in the U.S. Court of Appeals. They dropped their suit in exchange for the airport agreeing to an environmental assessment by the FAA, but the decision also gave the airport permission to proceed with its current project to add a runway safety zone and widen a taxiway. The FAA assessment could take up to a year.

A news article in the Wall Street Journal (December 18th) headlined "Why Is Delta Afraid of This Tiny Airport?" highlighted that airline’s outspoken opposition to any competition with its massive hub operation at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. In addition to comparing various statistics on the two airports (such as 203 gates compared with one), reporters Susan Carey and Cameron McWhirter included a table comparing the airports available in the top 10 US metro areas. New York and Los Angeles each have five airports; Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, and Washington each have three; Chicago, Dallas, and Houston have two apiece. Only Atlanta—second largest of the top 10—has but a single commercial airport. Yet we are expected to believe that a second airport "isn’t commercially viable or economically sound for the region."

There have been two studies of this question in recent years. The first, largely funded by the FAA, was carried out by a consultant under the direction of the City of Atlanta Department of Aviation (somehow presumed to be a neutral party). Released in May 2011, it considered 29 possible sites, narrowing those down to eight for more detailed analysis (including the Paulding County and Gwinnett County airports). After estimating the costs of the eight candidates at between $1.4 billion and $2.9 billion(!), the report concluded that the benefits of a second airport would exceed its costs. The second study, carried out by a Georgia Tech group, found that three sites, including Paulding County, were acceptable sites for a second commercial airport.

The legal assault on Paulding County’s plan has escalated considerably. A detailed report by the Associated Press identified four "heavy-hitting" law firms that have filed three lawsuits, submitted open records requests for numerous documents, taken depositions, started a website, and launched a nonprofit 501(c)(4) issue advocacy group. Paulding County officials say these efforts are being funded by Delta, but the evidence is circumstantial. Delta has been a client of three of the law firms, including McKenna, Long & Aldridge (which has created the advocacy group) and Sidley Austin, which filed the legal challenge over FAA approval. The attorney in the latter case is Peter Steenland, brother of Doug Steenland, former Northwest Airlines CEO during its merger with Delta.

Delta’s pilots union has sent representatives to local meetings to argue against the new airport, alleging that having a second airport "will raise our cost of doing business, and when Delta sneezes Georgia gets a cold." AP also reports that a Delta pilot told a local meeting that he’s concerned a second airport could "take away funding from Hartsfield-Jackson."

The only airline known to have shown interest in serving Paulding County Airport (now renamed Silver Comet Field) is ultra-low-cost carrier Allegiant. I’m amazed that Delta finds this tiny airport and this very different niche carrier to be such a threat. And the plain fact that all other major US metro areas have more than one commercial airport suggests that Delta’s expressed concerns are huge exaggerations.