Airport deal would fly 

Privatizing Hartsfield-Jackson is key to paying city's sewer bills

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Those numbers sound awfully familiar ... ah, yes, they almost exactly match what Franklin says the sewer job would cost.

Another stunning example: When Britain sold seven airports (including Heathrow and Gatwick) in 1987, the deal produced $2.5 billion for the government. Since then the private operator has invested $5 billion in the facilities, and generated almost $400 million in taxes.

But the city doesn't have to go to Oz or Jolly Old to find an expert on airport privatization. Just a little ways outside the Perimeter, in Duluth, is the office of Scott Fuller, president of American Airports Corp., which operates nine, mostly smaller airports, including New Orleans Lakefront.

"I don't think the issue is raising the cost for Delta," Fuller says. "One thing we do is bring a lot of efficiency, more service at less cost. We're more responsive to users."

Efficiency? Responsiveness? Rare words around Atlanta City Hall.

Moreover, a study by the Reason Foundation found that customer satisfaction was measurably higher at privately run airports. Imagine that!

Fuller also has had his calculator out estimating what taxpayers could harvest by privatizing the airport. "Billions of dollars is the correct estimate," he says.

There is one powerful disincentive to selling airports -- the loss of tax-free government bonds. However, the bond problem can be solved if governments retain ownership of airports and merely lease them to operators.

Back to Delta. When Congress began considering test programs for airport privatization, the bully-lobbyists from the airline industry demanded veto power over any deals. So in Atlanta's case, unless Delta jumps on board, any privatization plan is DOA.

The ultimate solution is for voters to demand that all of those fine capitalists in the federal government end corporate welfare for airlines and remove the carriers' stranglehold on privatization deals.

More immediately, though, now is a good time to negotiate with Delta. The company just reported more losses -- $458 million for the first nine months of the year. That follows a lot of other nine-figure-wide pools of red ink in the last few years.

"I think we should get Delta to sit down and offer them a deal [that], as the Godfather said, they can't refuse," says the taxpayers association's Sherman. "Make privatization something that will improve Delta's bottom line. I bet it can be done."

So does Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, one of the nation's leading proponents of privatization. A Reason study in 1999 pointed to the private operation of Indianapolis Airport, which already was regarded as a leader in efficiency. The operator's contract provides that the company won't realize a profit until it has achieved $140 million in cost savings.

"Every indication is that [Hartsfield-Jackson] could be much better run by a company whose profits are linked to performance," Poole says. "Delta could be a big beneficiary."

When Shirley Franklin was elected two years ago, she was big on auditing government. One report, by Bain & Co., highlighted a number of possibilities by consolidating city and county functions and privatizing.

But then Franklin got real about running the city. Her power -- like that of all local pols -- rests in her ability to spend money. Shrinking government shrinks power. Plus, one of Franklin's key constituencies is the army of city employees, far larger per capita than most other cities in Atlanta's league. Efficiency would mean thinning the featherbedded ranks in City Hall.

So, the Bain report is largely ignored. And it doesn't help that Bain honchos are Franklin's buddies. So they are now lowballing their study, saying it would save the city only a piddling $20 million or so a year.

Not so, counters Sherman. "Our estimate is closer to $167 million." That's another figure that would more than pay for the bonds on Atlanta's sewer repairs.

It isn't going to happen. Too many political sacred cows -- including the fattest, the airport -- would have to be butchered. Too many make-work jobs would be forfeited. Too many insider deals would dissolve under the scrutiny of a private operator.

Unless citizens are heard. Loudly. How about demanding a straw ballot in the fall election:

Do you favor increasing your sewer fees threefold to pay for repairs? Yes or no.

Do you favor privatizing Hartsfield-Jackson to pay for the sewer job? Yes or no.

Do you favor mandating that the mayor and City Council find, in addition to the airport, $100 million in savings through consolidation and privatization? Yes or no.

I'd bet the results would be "no," "yes," "yes."

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