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It’s been nearly three months since Paulding County leaders went public with a plan to attract airline service and become home to the second commercial airport in metro Atlanta.
But very little has gone according to their plan since then.
Backers have encountered a series of setbacks — and their hopes for an announcement of new air service have been pushed off to next year.
Paulding County Commission Chairman David Austin said he is undeterred, though he likened the effort to “being down in the mud and trying to trench through.”
Brett Smith, whose company is partnering with Paulding on the idea and would operate the airport under contract, said the obstacles are “merely bumps along a much longer road.”
Those bumps include legal challenges brought by Paulding residents who felt blindsided by the plan — put together over months with no public input or awareness — and who are concerned about noise and congestion.
The challenges have delayed regulatory approvals and funding for facilities improvements needed before Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport can handle airliners.
Meanwhile, the most critical element of any plan for such operations — an airline — has yet to emerge. The most likely candidate is a Nevada-based discounter called Allegiant Airlines.
At one point, Paulding air show officials hoped to break the news of their plan by having an Allegiant plane appear at the air show in early October, and announcing flights to Orlando at the same time. That didn’t happen, and Allegiant hasn’t commented beyond acknowledging talks with Paulding.
Backers also blame Delta Air Lines, the hometown megacarrier that has long opposed any second airport operation that could grow into a challenger to its hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International. They accuse Delta of orchestrating legal maneuvers to block or slow the Paulding project.
“The legal challenges are Delta trying to prevent any additional commercial service,” Paulding airport chief Blake Swafford said.
Delta hasn’t responded to that accusation, though its executives have openly derided the Paulding plan. Representatives of the carrier’s pilots union even attended a meeting of residents opposed to the plan, promising to help them spread the word to other local pilots.
Delta’s outspoken opposition alone could chill interest from Allegiant or another carrier, said Kevin Schorr, vice president of Alexandria, Va.-based consulting firm Campbell-Hill Aviation Group.
“If you have Delta … saying, ‘If you do this, we’re going to make your lives miserable,’ there are many, many other opportunities where Allegiant could take their airplane and not worry about Delta sitting on top of them,” Schorr said.
Austin, Smith and Swafford, the three leading players in the plan, had hoped for smoother sailing when it was unveiled. The county had already cut a deal with Smith’s company, Propeller Investments, to lease and operate the small terminal at the airport.
No public vote was needed, no environmental approvals required, officials said. They said the plan initially would only involve a few flights a week to a leisure destination, which they hoped would keep it under Delta’s radar and offset residents’ concerns. They pitched it as part of a broader economic development effort to bring aviation businesses to the county, hit hard by the recession and housing bust.
But opposition quickly flared, as has happened with past efforts to turn one of metro Atlanta’s smaller airports into a second airline destination. Even a small operation, critics said, could grow into one with numerous daily flights.
Two residents, Susan Wilkins and Anthony Avery, intervened in court approval of $3.4 million in bonds for a taxiway expansion.
A judge ruled in the county’s favor, but the bond sale is delayed pending appeal.
In federal court, the pair and four other residents challenged the Federal Aviation Administration’s environmental clearance for the airport. A settlement could call for an environmental assessment that could take months.
Wilkins and Avery declined to comment on who is funding the legal efforts.
Austin said the challenges have slowed progress, but added, “I don’t get discouraged or dissuaded.”
In addition to fearing the potential for noise and other issues associated with airline operations, residents cite the way the deal was kept from the public. Officials approved deals in meetings using the name Silver Comet, which residents associated with the popular recreation trail, not an effort to commercialize the airport. Propeller created a subsidiary it calls Silver Comet for the project.
The efforts to keep it quiet came after Propeller learned firsthand about the potential for opposition from the public, including Delta, to disrupt its plans. Propeller had previously tried to commercialize Gwinnett County’s Briscoe Field, an idea voted down by Gwinnett County commissioners after public opposition emerged.
Some Paulding residents are also concerned that Propeller could back out of the deal after the county invests in airport improvements, leaving taxpayers holding the bag.
Residents also note that officials said before the airport opened in 2008 that it would not be used for airline flights.
“Times change,” Swafford said. “Now after coming through this recession, we have no industry in Paulding County.”
Debate over the airport plan has ruffled feathers at the county chamber of commerce, whose executive committee recently voted to remove its incoming chairman from the position, citing in part his opposition to a project favored by the chamber.
“There are a lot more than a handful of people” opposed, said Paul Callahan, a local businessman who was bounced from the job.
Callahan said the issue is personal for him, since he lives about a mile from the airport.
“I don’t think the property values are going to go up if you have jets flying over your house every day,” he said.
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