Big retort to second airport: Transfers would be mess, new Delta chief warns

Minneapolis --- The incoming Delta Air Lines chief executive has some advice for Atlanta about a second commercial airport: Don't do it.

Richard Anderson, who takes Delta's controls on Sept. 1, said building a second airport to take the pressure off Hartsfield-Jackson International could inconvenience the primary customer base of connecting passengers and create a logistical nightmare. He said connecting passengers are the main reason Atlanta has so many flights, and that it would be impractical to shuttle them between airports.

"It's difficult enough for passengers to get from Concourse A to Concourse C, let alone from one airport to another to change flights," Anderson said during an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at his home in Linden Hills, a Minneapolis neighborhood.

He invited a reporter to his house after hearing the reporter was in Minneapolis to talk to people who knew him from his days as CEO at Northwest Airlines. Anderson, 52, sat with his wife, Susan, in their family room for a casual evening conversation.

The couple, who have two children in college, are preparing to move to Atlanta and wanted to know about various areas and how to avoid the worst traffic.

Anderson has been a longtime Minneapolis resident, spending 14 years at Northwest and then moving to Minneapolis-based UnitedHealth Group as an executive vice president in 2004. He was recruited for Delta's new board when it emerged from bankruptcy in April, and this week that board named him as Delta's new CEO.

On the airport issue, Anderson pointed out that most of the 85 million passengers a year who use Hartsfield-Jackson are connecting passengers --- they are simply changing planes. About 25 percent to 30 percent of Hartsfield-Jackson fliers begin or end their flights in Atlanta.

"The reason Atlanta is the busiest airport in the world is because it is the best connecting airport in the world," Anderson said.

The federal government this year gave Atlanta officials a $1 million grant to begin studying ways to improve air capacity at Hartsfield-Jackson. Some federal officials have strongly hinted the metro region should look at a second commercial airport about two decades down the road. The idea had also come up in the 1980s, to no result.

The idea has been strongly dismissed by current Delta officials. The airline controls about 80 percent of the business at Hartsfield-Jackson, and some airline analysts say Delta does not want the added competition that would come with a second airport.

Anderson said he had to deal with the second-airport issue in Minneapolis, which eventually opted to keep and enlarge its old airport.

"I've been through this debate here," he said. "They talked about it 15 or 20 years."

Anderson reiterated that he is not going to Delta with an eye toward engineering a merger, despite speculation sparked by his time at Northwest, widely thought to be a potential partner for Delta.

"In terms of a specific plan, there is no specific plan. We have to make Delta work as a stand-alone business and not get distracted by other things," Anderson said.

Anderson also said he is eager to pursue Delta's bid for new Atlanta-China routes as part of a broader international expansion.

"That's where the opportunity lies," he said.

"It's really sad that Northwest and United are objecting [to Delta's China bid]," he said. "They just don't want additional competition."

The U.S. Department of Transportation is considering Delta's application for China route rights and could rule later this year.