The first impression of Atlanta for much of Emory’s student body comes from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. As the world’s busiest airport and headquarters of Delta Air Lines, Hartsfield-Jackson serves over 2,700 flights daily. Despite the airport’s success, the state government appears poised to disrupt Hartsfield-Jackson’s effective management strategy, which has worked successfully since the airport opened in 1926. One version of Senate Bill 131, a bill recently passed by the Georgia Senate, would seize control of the airport from the city of Atlanta and transfer it to a newly created board under the supervision of Georgia’s state government.
This ill-conceived approach would needlessly endanger one of the biggest drivers of Atlanta’s economy. Delta, the largest employer in metro Atlanta, has even hinted it could reconsider future investment in Hartsfield-Jackson if the proposal becomes law. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp should prioritize the economy of the entire state over the narrow interests of his Republican base and veto the takeover proposal.
The bill puts a large amount of revenue for the city of Atlanta at stake, as control over lucrative contracts for airport vendors, such as bars and restaurants, and over $70 billion in bonds would be transferred to the state without any compensation to the city. Previous proposals to transfer control over the airport have gone nowhere in the state legislature; however, following charges from federal prosecutors involving bribery and corruption in the way the city procures vendor contracts, former Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle appointed a commission to examine these processes. The commission, made up entirely of Republican legislators from outside metro Atlanta, unsurprisingly recommended a state takeover of the airport.
Evidence suggests that a state takeover would do nothing to curb existing corruption. Republican legislators voted down an amendment which would require any public officials, including those on the new state airport board, to disclose any property which they own within a 3-mile radius of the airport. Such holdings would indicate a conflict of interest that could potentially allow those on the commission to profit from their positions. While bill sponsor Sen. Burt Jones (R-Jackson) has stated that “there is a definite pattern of verifiable unethical behavior at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport that can be attributed to an institutional flaw,” the takeover proposal simply creates an institution with the same chances of corruption with less accountability to the Atlanta residents who use the airport.
The Senate version of S.B. 131 would face legal challenges should Kemp sign it into law. Similar attempts to take over municipally-owned airports by state governments have been stalled by judges in court, as the Federal Aviation Administration will only approve a change in ownership if both parties come to a mutual agreement. A state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson would needlessly damage the relationship between the city and state governments without producing any notable positive results.
The House recognized these problems when it passed S.B. 131 with revisions. The chamber called for the creation of an Airport Overview Committee that would oversee the locally run airport instead of giving control to the state government. Legislators would be wise to choose the House approach and create a committee to root out corruption rather than follow the Senate’s proposal to radically upend the way our airport functions.
Recognizing the uphill battle they face in passing their proposal, Georgia Senate Republicans tied their bill to a continuation of Georgia’s jet-fuel tax break, which saves Delta $40 million each year. Their implication if the Senate proposal prevails is clear: Delta must change its stance on the airport takeover if it wishes to preserve its tax break. However, Delta has indicated that it would consider expanding away from Hartsfield-Jackson or even relocating its headquarters in the coming years if the bill is passed. A divestment by Delta from Atlanta would significantly damage the city’s economy, as the company generates over $43 billion in economic activity from its operations at Hartsfield-Jackson annually and is the city’s biggest private employer.
Republicans in Georgia’s legislature appear prepared to shoot the economy of their own state in the foot by needlessly antagonizing one of Georgia’s largest employers. All residents of Atlanta, including Emory students, should protest this unjustified attempt to seize what should remain our airport.
Andrew Kliewer (20C) is from Dallas.