Exclusive: FAA approves move by Atlanta-area airport opposed by Delta

Delta planes line up at their gates while on the tarmac of Salt Lake City International Airport in Utah September 28, 2013. Picture taken September 28, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (Reuters)

By Alwyn Scott NEW YORK (Reuters) - A decision by the U.S. aviation regulator has moved forward plans by a small Georgia airport to begin commercial airline service, despite strong opposition by Delta Air Lines and the city of Atlanta, the local county authority said on Friday. The approval by the Federal Aviation Authority, related to the handling of federal grants for the Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport, clears the way for the environmental study that is seen as the last major step before the FAA would decide on whether to allow commercial service at the single-runway airport, located about 40 miles from Atlanta, county officials said. "It allows us to move forward," David Austin, chairman of the Paulding County Board of Commissioners, told Reuters. The tiny airfield has become a lightning rod in the rolling hills northwest of Atlanta. County officials and business leaders say it would spur economic growth and create jobs, and have signed a deal with Propeller Investments LLC, a New York private equity fund, to develop business there. Paulding County commissioners are due to vote Nov. 11 to accept the language of the FAA approval, which added the Paulding County Airport Authority as a co-sponsor for airport improvement grants, which allows an environmental assessment that is being largely FAA funded to begin, said Blake Swafford, the airport director. Delta, its pilots' union, Atlanta's mayor and some local residents say the county's real goal is to build a commercial hub, a project that is unnecessary, wasteful and doomed to become a costly failure. "Nobody wants this expansion," said Dan McLagan, a spokesman for the Committee to Protect Paulding County, a non-profit that put up a website arguing against commercial airline service. Delta's chief legal office, Richard B. Hirst, sent a letter opposing the development to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx last week. Commercial air service in Paulding County "would wastefully divert federal transportation funding from Hartsfield International Airport," he wrote. The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is Delta's largest hub. Owned by the city of Atlanta, it ranks as the world's busiest airport, based on passenger traffic, according to the Airports Council International. Austin and Propeller argued that Delta is using unfair and deceptive practices to kill their project. The U.S. Department of Transportation is looking into the issues. [ID:nL1N0SN362] Protect Paulding County says elected leaders worked "behind closed doors" to start commercial service after pledges years ago that jetliners would never land at the airport, also known as Silver Comet Field. The organization says noise, traffic and crime will rise, the environment will suffer and taxpayers will be on the hook for a "multi-million-dollar project on which they had no input." Austin, the commission chairman, said meetings were held openly. "We never had to meet in secret because nobody ever came to our meetings," he said. "Until we announced we're going for the (commercial certificate) nobody cared." The county has paid about $1 million for the airport, which opened in 2008; funding has also included more than $40 million from the FAA and several million dollars from the state. "Anybody I know who's a businessman would do that deal," Austin said. LOOKING FOR BUSINESS Currently, there are about 18 private planes based at the airport, Austin said. Allegiant Travel Co filed a letter of intent to provide service, said Swafford. Other airlines also have expressed interest. The commercial service would remain small, geared to vacationers who "fly into Disney World for $59," without driving to Atlanta, Austin said. Development will allow the county to control the scale of the airport, he said. Atlanta still owns nearly 10,000 acres in Paulding County that it bought in the 1970s for a second airport. If the county doesn't develop its own field, the city could eventually build a major airport on that land, he said. Delta said commercial service would violate agreements made in 2007, when the city sold the county the land for the airport, and would be a poor use of scarce federal funds. "It's simply not needed, given the available capacity at Hartsfield-Jackson," Delta told Reuters. (Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Leslie Adler)