Ex-Tampa airport chief lands at Hartsfield-Jackson
By Ernie Suggs and <a href="mailto:dmarkiewicz
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
8:27 p.m. Monday, September 13, 2010
At the end of his first news conference after being chosen as the next general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Louis Miller paused as he awaited more questions.
He had talked about why he wanted the job. How not having a contract didn’t matter. About his relationships with major airlines and his desire to build Atlanta’s air cargo capacity. And about when he and his wife plan to move.
Having exhausted the media, Miller looked surprised.
“That was easy,” he said.
It could be the easiest day of his tenure in Atlanta. Miller, 62 and the former head of airports in Tampa and Salt Lake City, is set to take over the top job at the world’s busiest airport and also inherit the task of smoothly completing and opening a new $1.4 billion international terminal.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced Miller’s selection Monday. Assuming city council confirmation, Miller will replace longtime airport general manager Ben DeCosta, who retired in June after Reed did not offer to extend his contract.
Miller was picked to run one of metro Atlanta’s biggest economic engines over Lester Robinson, the former head of Detroit Metro Airport. A third finalist, John D. Clark III, of Indianapolis, dropped out last week.
Reed cited Miller’s 20 years of experience running major airports, the last 14 of them at Tampa International.
“He has successfully led two significant airports twice,” Reed said. “I am very confident that I made the right selection in asking Louis Miller to come to Atlanta and join our airport.”
Those familiar with Miller say he’s all about the job.
“He’s a workaholic. He just works and works and works,” said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who’s also on the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board.
Miller’s wife, Cyndy, is Iorio’s director of growth management, planning and construction services. Iorio said Cyndy Miller will keep her Tampa job until Iorio’s term ends next spring, then join her husband in Atlanta.
Iorio called Miller “a good man” who really did “a terrific job” in Tampa.
Miller, an accountant by training and an Army veteran, will start Sept. 27. His salary will be $221,000 a year — $32,000 less than his salary in Tampa, and less than DeCosta made.
“My number one goal is to exceed Mayor Reed’s expectations, to exceed the expectations of the stakeholders and to continue to move forward with the finest airport in the world,” Miller said.
Reed had initially said he’d have a successor in place when DeCosta retired June 30, but on Monday he said the process was smooth and noted the airport GM was chosen in less time than a new police chief.
“If someone believes there was a delay, they are mistaken,” Reed said. He said he got a list of five finalists on Aug. 6 and narrowed them to three after interviews. Reed said he picked Miller on Sept. 3, “and we spent last week working out the details.”
Reed’s chief operating officer, Peter Aman, led negotiations. Unlike DeCosta — but like everyone else in the Reed administration — Miller will work without a contract.
“We want to focus on talent and merit and we are best served by not having anybody on a contract,” Aman said. “We don’t want to lock people in unproductive positions. And it wasn’t difficult to convince [Miller] to accept no contract.”
Miller, who will be tied with Aman and the city’s finance chief as the highest paid municipal employees, said his open-ended deal with the city is “fair and reasonable.”
Regular flyers through Atlanta ought to be pleased, said Chris McGinnis, a former Atlantan who’s editor of theticket-atlanta.com, a site for frequent travelers based in Atlanta.
“For (frequent fliers), this is kind of like appointing the mayor of their city because they kind of live at the airport. It’s their hometown.” McGinnis said.
He said most business travelers like Tampa’s airport: “It’s easy to access and people just like it.”
Miller is a Utah native with a business degree from the University of Utah. He worked in various positions at the Salt Lake City airport from 1976 to 1996, rising to executive director. The Salt Lake City airport is Delta Air Lines’ western hub.
Both Delta and AirTran Airways, Hartsfield-Jackson’s biggest tenants and also significant carriers in Tampa, lauded Miller’s arrival in Atlanta.
“We believe the mayor made the right choice for the job,” AirTran marketing vice president Tad Hutcheson said. Delta CEO Richard Anderson, in a statement, said he looks forward to working with Miller and praised Reed for a “thoughtful, extensive” selection process.
The dominance of Delta, which controls about three-quarters of Atlanta’s passenger traffic, poses a particular challenge for a manager of such a large airport, some experts have said.
“It’s like any other enterprise that has a dominant client — you’ve got to pay particular attention to their needs,” said Dan Petree, dean of the business college at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. “That doesn’t mean you always agree with them, that doesn’t mean you let them dictate to you. That means you would ignore their needs and desires only at your peril.”
Miller’s experience with Delta was not lost on the mayor. “I wanted to make sure that we had someone [Delta] was familiar with,” Reed said.
Miller spent 14 years in the top job at Tampa, where he oversaw $1.1 billion in capital improvements and recruited competitive air service. Passenger counts doubled to more than 19 million a year before the recession — still a far cry from Hartsfield-Jackson’s nearly 90 million, in part because the Tampa airport is primarily a destination airport rather than a connecting hub.
Miller abruptly resigned from the Tampa International post last winter after the aviation authority board raised questions about zoning permits and project approvals. A board-commissioned review of the zoning permits concluded the work was not done in “sound practice.”
Iorio, the Tampa mayor, attributed any problems to a change in the makeup of the five-member board that “did change the general tenor of the meetings every month. . . . Sometimes the chemistry just changes. Because of that, Louis concluded it was time to move on.”
In Atlanta, Miller said customer service and security will be his two top priorities. But he and Reed also want to boost the airport’s cargo capabilities, as well as encourage airline competition.
“Competition is good and I have good relationships with all of the major carriers,” said Miller. “Delta is very important, but it is also important to treat all of our tenants the same.”
Perhaps the highest-profile challenge will be completing the international terminal, which will bring fundamental changes to the way the airport operates because it creates a new point of entry and exit on the east end of the concourses.
The city it preparing to sell bonds this fall to pay for continued construction and keep the project on track for a 2012 opening.
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