One of the more diverting side stories during this past summer's Olympic Games in Atlanta was the logistical trouble that bedeviled its operations. IBM had problems with the computer system that was supposed to flash results to the world's waiting media. Buses carrying athletes got lost or arrived late to competition. Simply getting around proved a challenge for visitors bedeviled by traffic tangles.
Ironically enough, though, at the one operation that a few years ago was giving the city's boosters heart palpitations, everything ran smoothly. Hartsfield International Airport, despite the strain of serving for a short time as the target of the world's travel plans, acquitted itself honorably, a state of affairs that surely places it among the most striking turnaround stories of recent years.
Certainly only the most optimistic would have predicted it in 1993, when Angela Gittens took over as airport manager. Hartsfield had just passed through a major corruption scandal, in which Gittens' predecessor was convicted along with a city councilman and six concessionaires on federal bribery and corruption charges. The concessions program on which the airport's revenues had increasingly come to depend was languishing. A program to build a new international concourse was foundering. And Atlanta's booming growth was placing strains on Hartsfield's ability to serve its passengers.
In the years since then, Gittens has tackled every one of those issues, and more, with a no-nonsense forthrightness that has earned her high marks from practically everyone who pays attention to Hartsfield. Which is, in fact, much of the Atlanta area: The airport, more than in many cities, has been key to the region's emergence as an economic power and continues to undergird its growth.
A onetime hospital administrator who logged a decade as deputy director of San Francisco's airport, Gittens is one of the new breed of professional airport administrators brought into being in the 1980s by the deregulation of air commerce. Her businesslike attitude has been crucial in Atlanta, where the airport is under the control of the city council and so, unlike in many cities, quite vulnerable to political meddling.
From the start, though, Gittens has worked hard to avoid it. She reached an agreement with the mayor and city council on an overall policy and set of objectives for the airport, and then used them to counter attempts at interference. "The only legitimate question was, were we true to the process and objectives?" she says.
The results are evident. Not only did the airport finish its international terminal in time for the Olympics, but there is a striking new shopping atrium with an upscale batch of tenants--who, as a condition of being there, have been prohibited from price-gouging. Although there are still complaints that the airport lacks enough parking, the number of spaces has grown substantially, along with the ticket counters and baggage space needed to serve the exploding number of passengers who begin or end their flights there, instead of merely passing through.
At the same time, Gittens has kept the airport on track in its planning to become competitive for international air freight, has boosted its ongoing maintenance program and, in a politically ticklish situation, managed to keep heavyweight Delta Airlines relatively happy while bringing American Airlines into a vacant set of gates that Delta had wanted for itself.
Improving the airport's management, she says, "is a double-edged sword, because it makes you responsible. This happens in government: You rail at the bureaucracy, at the constraints, but at the same time you hide behind them. When those constraints are taken away, you start to become accountable."
— Rob Gurwitt
Photo by Rob Nelson/Black Star