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Atlanta Deserves To Fly The Silver Comet

Our Atlanta staff travels all over the country. Until recently, the lion’s share of that travel was done on Delta Air Lines.

The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the busiest in the country, and Delta accounts for about 78 percent of its passenger traffic. Southwest Airlines’ acquisition of AirTran in 2010 has given our staff members some alternatives, but Southwest has done little to budge Delta’s dominance in Atlanta.

You would think, then, that Delta has reason to feel secure about its hold on Georgia’s capital. But its recent actions suggest this airline Goliath feels threatened by the potential arrival of a David: Silver Comet Field, a one-gate airport about 30 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Silver Comet could handle a maximum of four commercial flights a day if it secures the government approval it seeks. It currently handles about 15 to 20 private flights daily. Small, no-frills carrier Allegiant Air has expressed interest in serving Silver Comet.

Yet four flights a day is apparently four too many for Delta. The New York Times observed that big airlines have a history of fighting to stifle competition, regardless of its size. The theory is that even small airports can compete for routes that currently have unchallenged, high fares. Opponents of Silver Comet also suggest that small airports have a way of expanding once customers get a taste of lower fares.

Holden Shannon, a Delta executive, wrote a column that appeared in the Nov. 26 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in which he observed that “a second airport can quickly expand.” He called such a potential second airport “a threat to Atlanta’s economy, its jobs and its status as an international city.”

Of course, other metro areas do manage with more than one airport. New York and Los Angeles each have five within 40 miles of one another. Chicago has two (though a potential third has never managed to take off). Brett Smith, the managing director at Propeller Investments LLC, told The Wall Street Journal that Delta has “controlled and dominated the Atlanta market in a way no other carrier has been able to in any other large metro area.” Propeller, a New York private-equity firm, manages the Silver Comet terminal.

It is little wonder that proponents of Silver Comet suspect that Delta is behind many of the legal and bureaucratic hurdles the project has faced. Shannon sent a letter to the airport’s owner, the Paulding County Commission, leveling accusations of circumventing an environmental review. David Austin, the commission’s chairman, is convinced Delta is also behind a large Atlanta law firm’s attempts to block the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval.

“It appears that Delta has orchestrated a campaign utilizing expensive attorneys to find environmental or procedural reasons to delay or stop this important project,” Austin wrote in a letter to Delta’s CEO, The Journal reported.

While not all those who oppose Silver Comet are connected with Delta, it is likely that many of them are, and that the airline apparently is willing to throw a great deal of money and energy at blocking the project. Although Silver Comet could theoretically expand in the future, the day when it poses any real threat to Delta’s hold on Atlanta is far off, at best. It seems, though, that Delta is willing to take all comers seriously.

As well it should. Southwest’s arrival has already made an impact, at least at my firm. We used to regularly use Delta flights between Atlanta and White Plains, N.Y., the closest airport to our Scarsdale office. But after Delta jacked up its fee for changing reservations to $200 (plus fare differential) earlier this year, we moved most of our business to Southwest’s AirTran unit, even though AirTran only offers service from Atlanta to the much less friendly confines of New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. Southwest does not ding us for changing our travel plans, and it throws in two free checked bags per passenger besides.

So I expect Delta to battle as hard as possible, as long as possible, to keep its grip on its hometown travelers. Atlantans who do not work for Delta probably ought to fight for a ride on (or at least out of) the Silver Comet instead.

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