“Tiny Airport Fights for Sliver of Atlanta Market”

“Taking on Goliath is a worthy fight for commercial service for Paulding residents.  Keep up the effort Blake.”

Tuesday, December 23, 2014 . By MIKE TIERNEY . The New York (NY) Times DALLAS, Ga. - Airports do not get much smaller than Silver Comet Field at Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport, where an undeveloped two-lane road weaves to a church-quiet setting framed by small hills. On a recent weekday morning, four small business jets were planted on the tarmac, if it can be called that. Nine automobiles dotted the parking lot, most of them driven there for a meeting. Outside the two-story building that serves as the terminal, which was reminiscent of a lodge in off-peak season, there was no sign of human life. Only 50 miles away sits the world's most bustling airport, Hartsfield-Jackson. It maintains a monopoly on commercial flights in Atlanta, the largest metropolitan region without a secondary airport. Paulding Northwest would like to change that grip on the market. The airport has applied for a commercial license so it can introduce two flights a week, and has since encountered stiff opposition. Leading the charge against the bid is the Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, which averages about 1,000 daily departures from its sprawling hub. But the airport's supporters are crying foul, saying that Delta, along with the city of Atlanta, which owns Hartsfield-Jackson, has managed to throw up a series of barriers, legal and political, against the bid. "I've been very surprised at how extensively and aggressively Delta has fought it," said Blake Swafford, the Paulding airport's director. Delta, which declined to respond to Mr. Swafford's assertions, has laid out reasons for its opposition in newspaper opinion articles as well as letters to authorities, like one last year to the Paulding County Board of Commissioners. It cited Hartsfield-Atlanta's $58 billion in fiscal benefits for the area and a desire to "safeguard metro Atlanta's most powerful economic engine." The letter noted that Paulding residents, including nearly 800 Delta employees, would be at risk if the airport falters commercially. The city restated its aversion to Paulding's expansion this month when Mayor Kasim Reed wrote to the federal Transportation Department, urging it to investigate commercialization efforts of land that the airport authority now controls. The ultimate arbiter of Paulding's fate is the Federal Aviation Administration, which is weighing the request to add commercial flights. And even that process has been stalled by objections from a half-dozen Paulding residents who say that environmental studies on the property were insufficient. The F.A.A., which determines if an airport operator meets certain requirements, refrained from offering more details, including the timetable for possible certification. But supporters of the Paulding airport, along with its investors, say that they are not going away and maintain that commercial flights will begin taking off and landing late next year. The mere hurdle of obtaining permission to introduce commercial flights at existing airports is challenging, in part because nearby residents can protest over issues like noise. Of the nation's 5,148 public airports, fewer than 10 percent (506) are available to commercial fliers. The list is not growing. Propeller Investments, the New York firm that would oversee development at the six-year-old Paulding Northwest Atlanta, is no new adversary of Delta. The airline successfully lobbied against a much bigger commercial presence two years ago at an airport in Gwinnett County, slightly closer to Hartsfield-Atlanta. Brett Smith, Propeller's managing director, said that an F.A.A. inspector conducting environmental studies late last year at the airport advised him that approval was a few weeks away from completion. And he is convinced that Delta's complaints about the project to the Transportation Department along with its reported connections to residents who filed objections have caused the delay. (In response, Paulding officials have filed their own grievance to the Transportation Department over Delta's actions.) "Had Delta not interfered, there would be flights out of there today," Mr. Smith said. Mr. Swafford expressed cautious optimism that passengers would be hearing boarding calls by next autumn. But, as he waits for a green light from the F.A.A., "the target date seems to be sliding," he added. Propeller halted construction work on the gate area early this year. The airport now accommodates 10 to 30 takeoffs a day, mostly for recreational and training flights. Commercializing would introduce at first two flights geared toward vacation travelers to nearby locales in Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana. Allegiant Air is the most likely carrier. Because many current fliers in the area prefer airports in Birmingham, Ala., and Chattanooga, Tenn., Mr. Swafford contends that any impact on Hartsfield-Jackson would be negligible. He acknowledged that the airport had room to squeeze in a second gate, allowing it to handle as many as 10 daily flights. But, owing to a limit of logical destinations, a more reasonable goal is 10 to 12 a week, he said. If planes at that pace were filled, about 260 customers would depart each day - one for every thousand that fasten their seatbelts at Hartsfield-Jackson. He and Mr. Swafford are contending with a series of lawsuits filed by residents against the proposal. Citing the law firms' ties to Delta, both men see another string being pulled by the airline. It did not help Paulding's cause when two county commissioners who oppose the plan were elected to replace the backers of commercialization. To Mr. Swafford, Delta's resistance at the more expansive airport in Gwinnett County, where 10 additional gates were proposed, is understandable. But the only motivation he infers from the latest instance is Delta's concern that other regional airports in metro Atlanta would try to follow suit. Propeller has spent well over $1 million in preparations, according to Mr. Smith, who indicated that the company was too deep into the undertaking to turn back. "We're not going anywhere," he said. "This is something we're committed to, as well as the county."  Do you have an opinion about this story? Share it with other readers in our CAA Discussion Forums http://www.californiaaviation.org/dcfp/dcboard.php