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.