Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the busiest airport in the world, is easily able to handle hundreds of thousands of passengers on a typical day. The airport’s on-time rate is among the highest for a major hub and its enplanement costs are among the lowest.
However, over the past 18 months, the Atlanta airport has been beset by a series of major shutdowns. And the airport’s inability to handle adversity suggests it is time for new management.
The biggest recent debacle was the airport’s loss of power in December 2017. As former Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx tweeted: “Total and abject failure here at ATL Airport today. I am stuck on @delta flight, passengers and crew tolerating it. But there is no excuse for lack of workable redundant power source. NONE!”
In order to cut costs, Hartsfield-Jackson routed all of its power through a single source. As a result, when a fire occurred near the electric source, disabling power, both the primary and backup sources of electricity were disrupted. Georgia Power received a lot of the blame for its equipment failing. But it was the city of Atlanta’s decision to locate the back-up cables in the same housing as the primary cables, a mistake a first-year Georgia Tech engineering student would not make.
Yet that bad decision was amplified by a series of other bad decisions during the crisis. Passengers were stuck in aircraft for hours. Aircraft are required to be deplaned after three hours with a fine of $27,000 per passenger if they are not.
In some terminals, workers unintentionally herded passengers towards smoky areas. In others there was no one to answer questions. Passengers were forced to walk through smoke-filled tunnels to find out what was happening. Nobody seemed to be in control.
Mayor Kasim Reed refused to release any information. Reed waited until the Georgia Power crews and firefighters finished assessing the scene. Yet it was fairly obvious within about give minutes that there had been a major fire, that power had been knocked out and that there would be a multi-hour if not day-long wait for flights to resume. Why couldn’t the airport have told customers that?
Just as troubling is the airport’s recent responses to snow. Atlanta has received more snowfall this year than average. But two inches is the most snow the airport has received in any one day. Yet that small amount brings the airport to a complete stop.
Several years ago the airport bought additional de-icing equipment. Airplane wings must be de-iced in snowy weather, often causing flight delays. Airport officials told us that the additional equipment would reduce delays. But it hasn’t. Major airports in Chicago, Denver, Detroit and Minneapolis don’t become paralyzed when it snows. And each of those cities receives far more snow than Atlanta does. Is it too much to ask airport officials to work with these airports to learn how to improve its response to snow?
The airport is one of the most visible symbols of the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia. In fact, the Atlanta airport arguable means more to Atlanta than any other large hub airport means to its city. And every debacle makes metro Atlanta appear incompetent. Company executives considering Atlanta for corporate relocations remember stumbling around smoke-filled corridors or multi-hour delays due to one inch of snow. The city is trying to attract Amazon’s second headquarters. And while the city made the first cut, the continual meltdowns are surely on Amazon’s radar screen.
Further, there is no guarantee that Atlanta will be able to keep the air service that it has. For 2017, Delta, Atlanta’s most dominant carrier added only a 0.1 percent increase in seat capacity. This was the smallest increase of any U.S. hub serving 20 million or more passengers. Delta is rapidly growing other hub cities including Salt Lake City and Seattle. Perhaps this indicates Delta has all of the capacity at Atlanta it needs. Or maybe it is a permanent slowdown. Atlanta wouldn’t be the air capital that it is without Delta. But the airport has made limited attempts to cultivate relationships in case Delta decides to pull back capacity. The airport needs to consider how it can ensure that Delta expands and other interested airlines including Jet Blue, United and Spirit add flights as well.
Poor management of these recent problems can be partially pinned on Mayor Reed. Reed has taken an active management role of airport operations, despite lacking a background in aviation. Under his leadership, airport director has been one of the shortest tenured jobs in the city. Longtime airport manager Ben DeCosta, who was largely considered one of the sharpest airport directors in the nation left shortly after Reed’s election. Louis Miller, who was considered a quality replacement for DeCosta retired after only three years at the helm. Miguel Southwell, Miller’s replacement, was on the job only two years before Reed fired him complaining about customer service issues.
In May 2016, Reed promoted deputy manager Roosevelt Coleman to manager. Coleman has offered steady leadership, but prior to accepting the job, he had no experience in aviation. He was largely considered a temporary candidate, but Reed has chosen not to look for a replacement. Coleman’s best quality seems to be that he has not disagreed with the mayor.
The new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, has an opportunity to improve the airport and appoint a new airport director. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world and should have an experienced director with a proven track record in aviation. The mayor and airport director should consider a special operations task force to suggest and implement solutions and procedures that ensure the power fiascos don’t happen again and that a little bit of snow doesn’t cripple the airport. For the city, improving Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is not just about running a good airport, it’s about continuing to grow the entire Georgia economy.