Atlanta Needs Another Airport

Comparing how Houston and Atlanta recently dealt with airport expansion

In Houston, Southwest Airlines is getting ready to spend $100 million improving city-owned Hobby Airport. Southwest is building five new international gates and a customs facility so that it can add service to Mexico and the Caribbean from Hobby, the smaller of Houston’s two airports.

In approving Southwest’s plan a few weeks ago, the Houston City Council rejected an all-out lobbying campaign by United Airlines, which uses the city’s larger airport, Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport, as one of its major hubs.

United claimed that having international service from both Houston airports would undermine its own operation at Bush Airport and hurt the region’s economy.

The City Council ignored the pressure from the nation’s largest air carrier and voted to approve the airport expansion plan. As a result, travelers to and from Houston are likely to see more travel choices, increased competition among airlines and lower ticket prices.

Atlanta residents, by contrast, remain stuck with a monopoly airport, situated on the far south side of a sprawling metro area of 4.5 million people that is plagued by some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion.

Many metro Atlanta air travelers, especially those in the northern suburbs, would welcome the opportunity to have a second airport, even one that serves mostly short- and medium-haul routes to cities in the region.

This prospect was recently available in Gwinnett County. New York-based Propeller Investments offered to buy Briscoe Field and upgrade it to attract scheduled airline service in planes as large as 737s.

As usually happens when airport expansion is proposed, some airport neighbors organized to lobby the county Board of Commissioners to turn down the proposal. Unfortunately for Atlanta’s travelers, that’s exactly what county commissioners did.

Just as happened in Houston, the area’s dominant airline – in this case, Delta – opposed the proposal. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on May 23, “Delta, which is reluctant to split its operations between Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and Briscoe, has quietly lobbied against the plan.”

Had the airport expansion been approved, Propeller Investments would have added a 10-gate terminal and improved the main runway to handle 737s. With Hartsfield-Jackson served by nearly all major U.S. airlines (and many non-U.S. carriers), would any airlines have sought to provide flights at Briscoe?

Yes. Three aggressive low-cost carriers do not yet offer service in Atlanta: Allegiant, JetBlue and Virgin America. In addition, Delta basically admitted that if the Briscoe plan had gone forward, it would have “reluctantly” added service there, too.

Kinton Aviation Consulting has pointed out that when secondary airports near Boston offered viable alternatives to capacity-constrained Logan Airport, “economic development increase[d] across the whole region.” And, “… the greater Boston area saw more destinations served with direct flights, competitive pricing, and an ease in congestion. We believe the same thing would happen in Atlanta.”

Eleven large U.S. metro areas have populations in excess of 4 million; only two of them lack competing airports today: Atlanta (4.5 million) and Philadelphia (5.4 million). Cities similar in size to Atlanta that have two or more airports include: Boston (4.2 million residents), Houston (4.9 million), and Washington, D.C. (4.6 million).

The failure to expand Briscoe Field is a major setback to the region’s growth.

Atlanta likes to think of itself as a world-class metro area. But nearly all world-class metro areas have multiple airports.

When will metro Atlanta residents support taking this important step forward?

Robert Poole is director of transportation at Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.


Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.