Atlanta’s second airport

Briscoe ruling good for Gwinnett, bad for Atlanta?

Earlier this month, the Gwinnett County Commission unanimously rejected a proposal from a New York company to turn Lawrenceville’s Briscoe Field into the metro area’s second commercial airport. That decision, one writer says, will cost local travelers in our one-airport town the benefits of competition. But a Gwinnett activist responds that Briscoe is not the right location for such an operation, and taxpayers are better off, given the sketchy financial information in the proposal.

Tom Sabulis is today’s moderator. Commenting is open following Jim Regan’s column.

By Robert Poole

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, an MIT-trained engineer, is director of transportation at Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.

By Jim Regan

As a leader of Citizens for a Better Gwinnett, a member of the Briscoe Citizens Review Committee and a longtime Gwinnett resident, I am here to tell you that Gwinnett County unequivocally made the right decision in denying the Briscoe Field expansion.

Briscoe was never the right location for a regional airport for two reasons:

1. There is too much existing development around Briscoe, and within the approach/departure patterns, to allow for future expansion;

2. The far northeast quadrant of the metro area is too far away from metro Atlanta’s main population base. Given that the drive to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport would have been just as close as Briscoe, industry experts said most travelers would continue to utilize Hartsfield-Jackson over Briscoe because it would offer more flights, more destinations and better ticket pricing.

Additionally, Propeller Investments’ proposal promised limited flights despite the fact that FAA regulations do not allow governments or operators to limit the number of airport flight operations.

The timing of this proposal could not have been worse; it came when airline carriers are retrenching and trying to survive. In the past decade, all major airline carriers, except Southwest, have filed bankruptcy.

The number of major carriers shrank from seven to four. All regional carriers have ceased operation. Airlines are grounding smaller regional jets, reducing the number of flights offered and flying larger jets to achieve economic efficiency.

Expansion would have almost assured the private operators failure and required Gwinnett government and taxpayers to assume much higher future airport operating costs.

Propeller Investments, the sole bidder, is a startup company with no airport operation experience. Propeller’s bid, which is available online, was scored on Gwinnett County purchasing guidelines, receiving only 51 points out of 100 — not a passing score on anyone’s scale.

The 300-plus-page bid does not contain pro-forma financial projections, details of the capital improvement plan or facility costs, a firm letter of credit, or other details a business proposal should contain. Propeller did not even include financial statements to substantiate the company’s stability as a going concern.

Propeller’s bid did continue to make unsubstantiated claims of creating 20,000 jobs and $1.25 billion in economic impact, yet failed to provide supporting economic studies. It only guaranteed Gwinnett County $500,000 per year in rent for an asset that Brett Smith, Propeller’s CEO, valued at $100 million. Propeller’s bid relied heavily on state and federal grants to pay for the proposed $120 million expansion cost — that’s our taxpayer money. Since the grants had not been awarded, what was Plan B if the grants failed to materialize?

When Danny Porter, Gwinnett’s district attorney, stated, “We have to be rid of this culture of corruption that exists in Gwinnett County,” Gwinnett residents should have been alerted that resident involvement is required to restore honesty, integrity and trust to government.

For this, Gwinnett needs groups like C4BG: We will monitor what goes on not just at Briscoe Field, but with all issues affecting our quality of life.

Jim Regan is treasurer of Citizens for a Better Gwinnett. He lives in Lawrenceville.

28 comments Add your comment

T-Square

June 27th, 2012
10:35 am

Burroughston Broch – So 50 miles is too far for you to consider it a second airport? Wouldn’t that come pretty close to excluding both of the alternate sites you’ve listed?

Burroughston Broch

June 26th, 2012
8:22 pm

The City of Atlanta for decades has owned two 10,000 acre parcels of property for a second airport – one in Dawson County to the north and the other in Paulding County to the west. Each parcel is more than twice the size of Hartsfield’s 4700 acres.
If a second airport is needed, it would make far more sense to properly develop one of these than to shoehorn commercial traffic into Briscoe Field.
And, by the way, where is that second Boston Airport? The closest commercial airport to Logan is TW Brown at Providence, over 50 miles away.

AIE

June 26th, 2012
5:50 pm

Atlanta does not need a second airport. The present one is more than good enough. Even with a sixth runway, it would be fine. It’s cleaner and more comfortable than *many* American airports.

Instead of spending that money on an airport, it should be used to upgrade Atlanta’s high-potential yet woefully underdeveloped (underdeveloped) rail system. Lower Cobb County, western Fulton County, and the Northeast Expressway Corridor all need heavy rail access. The problem is that the state is run by pinheads who live in the 19th century and just don’t see how funding rail will increase the *state’s* tax revenues. Rural Georgia screws Urban Georgia 100% of the time.

Who, if they lived in Marietta or Smyrna or Lawrenceville or Stone Moutain, would choose to drive 25 miles in Atlanta traffic to the airport when they could take a train, pay $6 round trip, leave the driving to someone else and be done? Given that choice, and the rising gas prices (it will never be below $2 again in your lifetime), rail transit it a no-brainer… unless you are from one of the other 100+ counties that are still coping with the advent of electricity and computers.

Carl

June 26th, 2012
4:53 pm

Who cares what the people near Briscoe Field think? For the rest of us on the northside this would allow us to skip the hellhole that is Atlanta and stop supporting the corrupt government down there. The folks who live near the airport knew it was an airport when they moved there. Build up Briscoe so those of us who aren’t on the government dole can do our business. Sell Briscoe to the highest bidder and get the government out of their way. It’s the right thing to do. Anyone who thinks different is a nannystater.

SAWB

June 26th, 2012
3:26 pm

So, how much use does Dobbins AFB get? Could a new terminal be built on the west side of the base and commercial traffic allowed? The only problem is they might not want to rename the base after Maynard Jackson.

T-Square

June 26th, 2012
3:25 pm

Dobbins would be a great option also. Only thing you would have to build is parking and a terminal, the runway is already more than large enough and the homeowners there couldn’t really complain about the noise 737s would make coming in, cause the C-130s make a lot more.

HDB

June 26th, 2012
2:51 pm

The option for a second airport is clear: develop around Dobbins!! Much of what would be needed is there…..many airports share facilities with the military — Charleston, SC comes to mind…….

Don

June 26th, 2012
2:21 pm

Making Briscoe commercial is a tempest in a teapot. All it could ever be is a small airport with expensive, regional flights to serve the local businessmen. An isolated hub with a few spokes. Big whoop.

With transportation terminals, it’s almost always better to have one big one than two small ones. Better network functionality, more frequent and shorter overall trips. So, why not concentrate on connecting H-J airport better to metro Atlanta and the region? How about frequent, all day, GCT/Xpress bus service from Gwinnett to the airport. We already own the buses. How hard could it be?