Hartsfield-Jackson Airport Manager Dumps Designer

Aug. 16--The general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport fired the design team working on the future international terminal Monday, saying the firms had failed to complete their design on time and within budget.

The design team, in turn, blamed airport officials for micromanagement and inflated demands.

Ben DeCosta, the Atlanta airport's manager, said the "setback" will delay until 2010 the opening of the Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal, already far behind schedule. Also, the airport has spent $34 million on designs it may never use.

DeCosta said the design team, led by the well-known architectural firm Leo A Daly, never warned airport managers that the price tag for their plans exceeded the budget by at least $140 million. He called the plans "overdesigned" and "luxurious" and said the team wanted to use more steel than necessary.

"They designed it to be far more muscular than it needed to be --- at our expense," DeCosta said.

But the chief operating officer of Leo A Daly, John Whisler, said the designers were under "intense oversight" from the airport's many consultants and employees in charge of the expansion project.

Whisler said the airport officials kept requesting expansions and additions --- such as a new maintenance terminal for the underground train system --- but told Daly to keep the costs "below the line," or hidden.

"The folks who report to the airport director wanted more than they could afford," Whisler said.

The price rose also because of huge increases in the market cost of steel and concrete due to an unprecedented building boom in China, he said.

During the past two years of design work, the airport increased the terminal's proposed area from 930,000 square feet to 1.2 million and expanded the number of gates from 10 to 14.

Even so, DeCosta said airport officials were repeatedly reassured by the design team that the building would come in under budget.

But Daly said DeCosta was "fully aware" of the additions and rising costs.

Whisler said he believes the design team is a scapegoat for the airport's growing concerns about Delta Air Lines' ability to help pay for the international terminal, which is part of a massive expansion project that includes a fifth runway opening next year. The budgeted cost of the international terminal is $688 million.

The airport expects to repay the terminal bonds with a combination of passenger ticket charges, federal grants and commitments from Delta. But the Atlanta-based airline is fighting to stay out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, in which a judge could cancel that obligation.

"I had words from Mr. DeCosta to the effect that a slow-down in the decision-making on this terminal could be beneficial in light of the situation at Delta," Whisler said.

Hartsfield-Jackson has paid the team $34 million for their designs, and is scheduled to get the completed plans next week.

The drawings call for a huge glass wall framing the Atlanta skyline, roadways and an entrance that would create a new "front door" to the airport. The new terminal on Hartsfield-Jackson's east side, adjacent to Concourse E, would eliminate the need for people arriving on international flights to recheck their luggage and exit at the other end of the airport.

DeCosta said he would rebid the project and hoped the new design team could use the existing plans. But "if it turns out they can't salvage them, they will be scrapped and the new team will start from scratch," he said.

DeCosta declared the design team's contract in default in late June. Negotiations to salvage the contract were unsuccessful.

Leo A Daly has done other airport projects, including the striking Cesar Pelli-designed terminal at Reagan National Airport in Washington.

Daly was joined on the project by three minority-owned companies based in Atlanta: KHAFRA Engineering Consultants, Anthony C. Baker Architects and Planners, and Browder and LaGuizamon & Associates.