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.