Second airport might not fly

May 21, 2007
Officials say Atlanta needs it, but skeptics wonder if there's enough money or space to build such a thing.

It seems like such a simple idea --- your first airport gets overcrowded, so you build a second one.

But in a world ruled by divisive politics, soaring land prices, highly competitive airlines and the NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome, a simple plan can become complicated in a hurry.

Competing forces were already beginning to surface late last week, just days after federal officials announced a $1 million grant to study ways to increase capacity at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, raising the possibility for a second airfield somewhere in the metro area in about two decades. Everyone agrees --- the road to a new commercial airport for metro Atlanta will be an uphill journey, likely igniting one of the region's most intense debates in years.

"You have a myriad of issues that come with it," said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), an aviation expert who wants to see the results of a study before weighing in on the idea. "Who should build it? Who should run it? Whose airport [should it] be?"

Federal transportation officials said cities like Atlanta, Las Vegas, Chicago and San Diego should begin looking at new airports to supplement their current airfields. Fail to do so, they warned in a report, and that reluctance could undermine regional economic growth.

"This airport's success is turning into its greatest challenge," U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters told reporters at a Hartsfield-Jackson news conference called to announce the grant.

Even with the recent upgrades, Peters said, "Hartsfield-Jackson may simply not be enough to handle the flood of fliers heading its way."

Twenty-five million passengers used the airport in 1975. That number had climbed to 85 million last year, making Hartsfield-Jackson the world's busiest airport. Passenger numbers could nearly double --- to 150 million annually --- by 2025, said airport General Manager Ben DeCosta.

"It's hard for people who are worrying about tomorrow to worry about 15 or 20 years from now," DeCosta said. "But somebody's got to worry about it."

Two of those worrying are officials with Delta Air Lines and AirTran Airways, Hartsfield-Jackson's major carriers.

"We are not convinced it is feasible for Atlanta to have a second airport," said Tad Hutcheson, AirTran's vice president of marketing and sales.

Airline officials are concerned that if a second airport is built, it will be used primarily to handle short-haul flights, while Hartsfield-Jackson would be used for long-haul domestic and international flights. That could require passengers to sometimes take buses between airports.

"Are you going to sit in Atlanta traffic for two hours to connect from one airport to another?" Hutcheson asked before answering his own question. "That's not going to happen."

Joe Kolshak, Delta's executive vice president of operations, said officials should first concentrate on maximizing capacity at Hartsfield-Jackson.

"The value of having such a large airport and operation at Hartsfield is that it creates so many connection possibilities," Kolshak said.

Building any new airport --- anywhere --- would create a series of hard-to-overcome problems, said Bruce Seaman, a Georgia State University economics professor who has conducted various studies on major Hartsfield-Jackson projects, like the year-old, $1.3 billion fifth runway.

"You have to start decades in advance to even contemplate having another airport," he said. "It's very difficult to get the land together and then to figure out who's willing to tolerate an airport in their backyard."

That's a particularly thorny issue in fast-growing metro Atlanta, he said. A second airport would need to be located near the major population centers, he said. But try to locate an airport near suburban neighborhoods and an outcry will usually follow, he said.

"It's got to be on the north side of the city," Seaman said. "And when you go up there, there's no room. I don't see it happening. I think it's politically impossible."

But if passenger growth continues, local officials might be called up to do the impossible. Someday, Hartsfield-Jackson --- even with current expansion plans and a new international terminal --- might not be able to handle the passenger load.

"We believe we can accommodate upwards of 100 million," Mayor Shirley Franklin said in a recent interview. "But there is every reason to believe that Atlanta and Georgia need to be concerned about the airport infrastructure that will be necessary well into this century."

DeCosta said he will meet with Franklin this week to begin initial discussions. The airport chief said he is well aware of the challenges ahead. And he knows that many second airport efforts end up in the dust --- voters recently rejected a proposed new airport for San Diego.

"We want to do it in such a way that, if we go the second airport route, we have a good chance for a successful outcome," he said.


* 1975 --- 25 million passengers

* 1995 --- 58 million

* 2000--- 80 million

* 2006 --- 85 million

* 2010 --- 105 million*

* 2015 --- 124 million*

* 2025 --- 150 million*


Source: Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport

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