A new agreement between the Atlanta airport and its counterpart in Prague aims to improve aviation collaboration, but it was clear during Friday’s signing ceremony that both sides had an ulterior motive: spurring business interaction.
Not one speaker let the prospect of reviving a nonstop flight to the Czech Republic capital, which Delta postponed for economic reasons about five years ago, slip from the discussion.
The only Delta Air Lines Inc. representative in the room, when given the chance to speak, said he “got the hint,” but that the community would have to work to help Delta fill the business class seats that are key to to a route’s long-term viability.
That’s fine with John Selden, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s new general manager, who believes the principal area of improvement for the world’s busiest and most efficient airport is expanding its international connectivity.
“Hartsfield-Jackson has international travel, but it doesn’t have the international travel it should have. International travel at Hartsfield-Jackson is key to trade, to business, to growth, to the economy, to the region, to the United States, to our trading partners all around the world.” Mr. Selden said.
His counterpart from the Czech Republic, Prague airport Chairman Vaclav Rehor, exemplifies the reach of the city’s global companies. Mr. Rehor traveled through Atlanta about 20 times in his former role as chief financial officer in Europe for Fleetcor, an Atlanta-based payments company.
Despite the airports’ dramatic disparity in size — Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport (PRG) had about 17 million passengers to ATL’s 107 million last year — Mr. Rehor said after a tour that both sides have a lot to learn from each other.
Prague’s airport, he said, is focused on being a gateway for travelers, three-quarters of whom stay in the city after arrival. Atlanta is famous as a streamlined transit hub, where about two-thirds of passengers never leave the airport.
“I think there are quite a lot of things we can actually talk about and try to solve,” Mr. Rehor said. Customs is one issue: Mr. Rehor has requested specifications from U.S. Customs and Border Protection for building out a pre-clearance area at the Prague airport, which would mean passengers could deplane in the U.S. with their immigration screening done. So far, Ireland is the only country in Europe with that option.
Mr. Rehor showed an airport video that was notable for its lack of scenes from within the airport itself. It mainly showcased Prague, in particular its landscapes and the storied architecture stemming from the Czech Republic’s 1,400-year history. Because of its relatively few passengers, the airport can focus on being the first pleasant experience for arriving tourists, he said.
“This is why we exist,” he said, later comparing notes on airport quality satisfaction surveys with Mr. Selden over lunch.
The sister-airport agreement is the seventh such pact signed by Hartsfield-Jackson and its first in Europe. Other sister airports are located in Cote D’Ivoire, Israel, Liberia, China, El Salvador and Jamaica.
George Novak, honorary consul general for the Czech Republic, praised Mr. Selden for being willing to implement an agreement so quickly into his six-month tenure as general manager. The idea, Mr. Novak said, came when the honorary consul attended the celebration of ATL’s history-making 100 millionth passenger in 2015.
“That was when it started, and this is when it starts officially as something to work on,” said Mr. Novak, who has represented the country in Georgia for 26 years.
Before that, Mr. Novak worked for an engineering firm which helped shape the design of the Atlanta airport’s Midfield Terminal, which at its opening in 1981 was the largest in the world, dramatically increasing gate space and efficiency by creating a series of parallel concourses.
“I have nothing more to do with the airport, except that I want a direct flight to Prague,” Mr. Novak said, reiterating the theme of the day.
Political and economic officer Bohdan Malaniuk, visiting from the Czech embassy in Washington, said the airport agreement exemplifies the strength of Czech-U.S. ties.
“The U.S. is a large market where we can export a lot our value-added products, and we are doing that,” Mr. Malaniuk said, but noted that more could be done. “We would like to have a direct flight to Prague.”
Alrene Barr, director of international affairs at the airport, said the two sides will now create working groups to codify their collaboration.
Mr. Selden praised Ms. Barr and her team for their efforts in spearheading the agreement, saying outreach is increasingly vital as Atlanta becomes more of a destination for global carriers.
“We are connectivity. Hartsfield-Jackson has 150 cities. If you can get cargo here, we can get it anywhere in the United States that day, because everybody wants these things now. International business needs to grow here at Hartsfield-Jackson.”