The two major airlines at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport have greeted the idea of a second commercial airfield for metro Atlanta with chilly skepticism.
Officials with Delta Air Lines and AirTran Airways said Wednesday they have no problem with a study of increasing metro airport capacity, but questioned the concept of a second airport to complement Hartsfield-Jackson.
"Our focus right now is increasing the capacity of the airport that we have, and that's Hartsfield," said Joe Kolshak, executive vice president of operations for Delta. "We really don't want to lose focus on doing all we can do to maximize Hartsfield."
Federal officials this week announced a $1 million grant to help Hartsfield-Jackson study ways to increase capacity, and they strongly suggested the city should look at the possibility of a second airport.
"Atlanta's leaders will have to embrace new airports and new ways of thinking if they want this city to remain a national symbol of good connections and not become a destination of delays that would make rush hour on the connector feel like a pleasant Sunday drive," U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said at a Hartsfield-Jackson news conference to announce the grant.
The study is expected to take about two years, and even if it finds a second airport is needed, it could be two decades before jets are landing at the new location. And that assumes backers of the new airfield could come up with the billions needed for its construction and the political coalitions needed to overcome any opposition.
The second airport also would need the backing of the airline industry. Delta and AirTran on Wednesday both expressed serious concerns about the concept.
"We're hub-and-spoke carriers, and we're just not sure how a second airport would work," said Tad Hutcheson, vice president of marketing and sales for AirTran. "We're not against it, but we're not convinced it's in the best interest of the city."
Delta operates about 1,100 flights a day out of Hartsfield-Jackson, and AirTran has more than 260. Delta represents about 70 percent of the airport's operations.
Hartsfield-Jackson had about 85 million passengers pass through its gates last year making it the busiest airport in the world. By 2015, more than 123 million passengers are projected to use the airport annually.
The airport last year completed work on a billion-dollar fifth runway to reduce delays and a new international terminal is on the drawing boards. Federal officials, however, warn that growing passenger demand could overwhelm the 4,750-acre airport within two decades unless ways are found to increase capacity.
Kolshak argued that capacity can be increased by new technology, improvements at Hartsfield-Jackson and rethinking the way airspace is used. "We're not opposed to the study," Kolshak said. But he added that, "Hartsfield's already here. It's operating. It's going to have the most immediate impact on the community, the state and the Southeast."
He said it is "premature" to comment on the chances for a second airport. But he said Delta wants to be represented on any committee studying ways to increase airport capacity in metro Atlanta.
"Absolutely --- underscored," Kolshak said.
Airline officials worry that having two commercial airfields in the same area will split their operations and also create a niche for more low-cost carriers that can cut into some of their most profitable regional routes.
Hutcheson said one of AirTran's main concerns is that most current Hartsfield-Jackson passengers are connecting to other flights. Airport officials put that number at about 70 percent.
"The airport is very efficient in its design and operation," Hutcheson said. "But if you split the hub, I'm afraid you'd lose a lot of that connecting traffic."
Hub-and-spoke carriers wary of Feds' suggestion that city consider adding another commercial airfield
Officials say Atlanta needs it, but skeptics wonder if there's enough money or space to build such a thing.
"We don't think the airline's ever run better than it's running now," said CEO Leonard.
During a recent Monday morning rush, more than a hundred AirTran customers stood in a line that wrapped around the carrier's main lobby and down a hallway behind its ticket counters.