Delta Vows to Fight Plan for Flights at Small Airport Near Hub

ATLANTA (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT) -

Delta Air Lines’ top executive said Friday the carrier will fight a plan to add commercial air service at a small regional airport 38 miles away from Atlanta, where Delta is based.

“With the city of Atlanta and Mayor (Kasim) Reed, we will work together to oppose any investment in that facility,” Delta chief executive Richard Anderson said in New York City, where he was attending a conference.

Anderson’s reaction came just hours after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Propeller Investments, whose bid to bring airline flights to Gwinnett County, Ga., failed last year, is now in partnership with the Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport to do the same there, as well as to create a cluster of aviation-related businesses in the area.

Propeller chief executive Brett Smith told the Journal-Constitution he hopes to announce airline service to Paulding by year’s end, after the airport receives necessary federal approvals. He said his firm is talking with carriers with jets in the size range of the Boeing 737, but he declined to name the carriers.

“It’s going to be limited to start,” Smith said.

The operation he envisions – one airline with a few flights a week, at least initially – wouldn’t constitute a true alternative to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which has more than 1,000 takeoffs every day and serves as one of Delta’s hubs. Paulding County’s airport is tiny and remote, with no control tower.

Still, it is the latest attempt to offer alternative airline service in the Atlanta region, one of the few in the nation with only one commercial airport.

Delta has historically opposed the idea of a second commercial airport in metro Atlanta.

“Hartsfield-Jackson is the best, most important airport in the Southeast, if not in the United States,” Anderson said. “It is a gem of an asset for the community, and all of our resources need to be spent in keeping our Hartsfield-Jackson No. 1 in the world.

“And resources should not be dissipated for a facility that will take an enormous amount of cash and ultimately be an economic and community failure.”

Public opposition to big jets sank Propeller’s bid to run Gwinnett’s Briscoe Field last year, and the same concern has shot down other “second airport” initiatives.

In contrast to the Gwinnett effort, which required a key vote from the county commission, Smith said his company already has signed contracts with the Paulding airport’s governing authority.

Blake Swafford, director of the Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport, said the airport has also already submitted applications to the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration seeking approvals to allow commercial airline service.

Swafford said there are no public hearings or noise-mitigation moves necessary because of the small scale of airline service planned, and he said the airport underwent an environmental study when it was built in 2008.

The FAA said Thursday it is reviewing the request for a certificate to conduct airline operations, and will also determine if there are any environmental consequences of the upgrade. The agency expects a decision in the next 70 days.

Other details could be daunting: The airport would need security infrastructure and staffing, including $250,000 worth of perimeter fencing, for which it plans to seek an FAA grant.

Anderson indicated that Delta would seek to block such funding requests for the Paulding airport.

“We are adamantly opposed to spending any resource or funding on an airport other than Hartsfield-Jackson,” he said.

Smith said Propeller also would spend several million dollars, including building a temporary control tower until the FAA puts up a permanent one. Baggage-handling infrastructure also would be needed.

Work on added runway shoulders and a taxiway extension is already underway, funded by a mix of federal grants or airport authority bonds that could be reimbursed by future grants. That work is expected to be done by year’s end.

Still, opposition could arise.

“If there are justifiable concerns, then we try to adjust what those concerns are,” Swafford said.

“I’m sure that somebody might be annoyed. … There’s probably a handful of folks that may have some issues,” said Paulding County Board of Commissioners chairman David Austin, who is also on the airport authority. But he doesn’t think it will delay plans.

“Our biggest approval comes from the FAA,” Austin said.

The county-owned airport sports a small but handsome terminal and a 6,000-foot runway – long enough for anything up to a midsize airliner, though not for widebodies. Currently, the airport handles about two dozen flights a day by small planes, and it has a flight school.

Late last year, Propeller struck a deal to lease the terminal and take a lease option on 60 surrounding acres. As part of the plan, the airport will be renamed Silver Comet Field at Paulding Northwest Atlanta.

In years past, the idea of a second airport usually dovetailed with speculation that it might draw Southwest Airlines, the low-cost carrier that’s grown into a national power. But Southwest chose a different route into the market, buying AirTran Airways and taking over its sizable Hartsfield-Jackson operation.

Several smaller, leisure-oriented airlines, such as Allegiant Air, specialize in vacation-package and charter flights, and use smaller airports around the country.

On the other hand, airlines have been cutting service to small cities, leading many small airports to lose airline service and revert back to general aviation airports catering to private jets and charter service.

The Paulding airport has no direct interstate access and no major transit service from metro Atlanta. Swafford said he expects the flights from his airport may appeal to those who live in Paulding and nearby counties.

Swafford said he wouldn’t expect a large operation to evolve. “We’re always going to be … constrained” because of the limitations of the airport, he said. But he expects the airport’s small size to also be part of the appeal.

“The experience of going in and out of a small airport (is) a very nice way to begin or end your trip, especially if it’s 20 or 30 minutes from your home instead of an hour-and-a-half from your home,” Swafford said.