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Atlanta airport general manager ousted by mayor

With the airport under pressure to fix long security wait times while tackling a series of enormous expansion projects, the head of the world’s busiest airport has been ousted by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Miguel Southwell, general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, will no longer lead the airport, according to a written statement from Reed late Friday evening.

The unexpected action by Reed removes the leader of the Atlanta airport - one of the biggest economic drivers in the state and the Southeast - at a critical time in its history.

The airport faces the issues of long security screening lines; agitated hub carrier Delta Air Lines facing new foreign competition; a heated battle over Uber regulations; a rush to complete deals that are high on the mayor’s priority list; and the jostling among powerful companies for major airport contracts.

Also, the airport is in the midst of embarking on a major renovation of the terminal and a $6 billion expansion that includes a sixth runway and Concourse G.

Reed said in the statement that he is “committed to achieving maximum operational efficiencies and the highest level of customer service possible. I wish Mr. Southwell the best in the next chapter of his career.”

One Atlanta City Council member questioned news reports Saturday that the public frustration over recent long security lines led to Southwell’s departure.

Repeated efforts to reach Reed and Southwell on Saturday were unsuccessful.

How well the airport is managed, how efficiently it serves its role as a major global connecting hub and how it prepares for future growth is critical for metro Atlanta and the region.

Hartsfield-Jackson has a direct economic impact of $34.8 billion in metro Atlanta and hosts some 63,000 jobs including airline, airport and contractor positions.

The mayor’s ouster of Southwell came as a surprise to industry observers. Southwell, who had good relations with many of those he worked with, just this month was named CEO of the Year by the Atlanta Business League.

“It’s a loss to the city to lose someone of his professionalism and caliber and renown around the world in the aviation industry,” Atlanta Councilwoman Felicia Moore said.

Reed named Roosevelt Council as interim general manager of the airport following Southwell’s removal. Council is a former Atlanta financial executive who served as the airport’s chief financial officer.

Council “has done an excellent job as a financial chief at the airport, but in terms of being an aviation professional, that’s not where he comes out of. He comes out of the financial realm,” Moore said.

She said recruiting a new airport manager from another city may be difficult with the mayor’s term ending after 2017, “knowing that in a year and a half their job… could potentially be gone depending on who the next mayor is.”

Challenges compounded

Reed’s hard-line approach comes just before one of the airport’s biggest tests of its system to process thousands of passengers an hour: Memorial Day weekend, during a record-breaking year for crowds, piled on top of already overwhelmed Transportation Security Administration checkpoints.

But Moore, who sits on the transportation committee and has feuded with the mayor on other issues, said she thinks it “doesn’t make any sense” that security lines were the reason driving Southwell’s ouster.

“If that’s the case, every airport general manager across the country needs to be fired,” Moore said. “It’s more to it.”

While security wait times have been the most visible problem at the airport in recent weeks, other political issues have been bubbling beneath the surface in the airport’s management offices.

The airport is enmeshed in a controversial political battle, in an effort to legalize and regulate pickups at the airport by ride-sharing driver services.

Southwell said in March that he intended to allow legal Uber X and Lyft ride-share pickups by July 1 and proposed a plan to do so, including a requirement for fingerprint-based background checks, which generated vociferous objections from Uber and Lyft.

Reed’s administration has launched an effort to rework the airport’s proposal, even as Southwell sought to move his proposal forward, exposing a schism between the mayor’s staff and airport management.

And in the often-messy world of airport contracting, several politically-connected companies are seeking to win millions of dollars in lucrative contracts, including massive airport parking and concessions contracts.

Anger over long lines

But to the traveling public, Hartsfield-Jackson has been in the spotlight for weeks over long security lines and faces pressure to fix the issue with the Transportation Security Administration. Long wait times at TSA checkpoints have plagued the Atlanta airport for a year, but have worsened recently, while cropping up at other airports around the country.

Construction this month to build “smart lanes” that use radio frequency identification technology and automated conveyor belts to move bins around more quickly for a pilot project has closed one of the airport’s security checkpoints, leading to even longer lines that stretch into baggage claim and fill the terminal.

The smart lanes are expected to be complete by Tuesday, but the project is in crunch time to finish preparations in time for the re-opening — just days before an influx of hundreds of thousands of passengers over Memorial Day weekend and the kickoff of a very busy summer that could bring big crowds and longer waits.

Turnover at the top

Southwell’s removal was the second personnel action by Reed on Friday. He also let go Atlanta Watershed Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina.

Under Reed, airport leaders have had relatively short tenures before being replaced by an interim manager.

Southwell had been on the job for two years, tapped for the top job at the airport in May 2014. He took on the position then at the age of 58 for a $221,000 salary.

At the time, Reed called Southwell “the right executive to continue Hartsfield-Jackson’s dominance.”

Southwell had already been a potential candidate for the top spot in 2010, after the departure of longtime airport manager Ben DeCosta. DeCosta had been the top executive at Hartsfield-Jackson for 11 years, but had contentious relations with Delta during lease negotiations, and was on his way out shortly after Reed took office in 2010.

Louis Miller from Tampa was named as his successor, and lasted three years before retiring.

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