Airports Council International released its annual report of the busiest airports in the world. Unsurprisingly, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport once again sat atop that list, and it wasn’t even close. In 2022, ATL served nearly 93.7 million passengers. Dallas Fort-Worth claimed the No. 2 spot, but had 20 million fewer passengers.

ATL’s unchallenged position as the busiest airport is both a success and a detriment. “ATL brings the world to Atlanta and opens opportunities for our residents and businesses. It is truly the economic powerhouse of the Southeast and a major player in our work to move Atlanta forward,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said in response.

That sounds great, but at the same time passengers often have to deal with the annoyances and failures of a hulking airport, including long TSA and bag-check lines, flight delays, limited on-site parking and an uncomfortably crowded airport. Even amenities, like airline lounges, reserved for private members or those with elite status, are sometimes so full that there’s a wait to get in, which leave passengers demanding relief.

Clearly, there are too many passengers at ATL, but that’s not always the case elsewhere. I travel regularly for work and pleasure, and in advance of a recent trip to London for a conference, I was surprised by its number of airports. London boasts six major airports, which help relieve London-Heathrow International Airport. Likewise, many large cities, including New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and so forth, have reliever airports, but for some reason the busiest airport in the world — ATL — doesn’t.

By way of background, the massive Atlanta airport sprouted from humble roots. Originally, the site was a racetrack that was converted into an airport in the 1920s, and it has since morphed into the behemoth it is today. Despite being heralded as the Atlanta airport, much of it isn’t in Atlanta or even Fulton County for that matter. It spills over into the cities of College Park and Hapeville and Clayton County, but it has fallen under the city of Atlanta’s jurisdiction for about a century.

The location makes it supremely inconvenient to access for many, especially for Georgians living north of Atlanta and those who simply don’t want to be mired in Atlanta’s notoriously bad traffic, which is another transportation mess for another column. Given all of this, passengers may be scratching their heads and wondering why Atlanta doesn’t have a commercial reliever airport.

For all of the city of Atlanta’s faults, they foresaw the possible need for another airport decades ago and made plans for it. “The city of Atlanta has owned about 10,000 acres of land in Paulding County since 1975 as part of its consideration of a second airport,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Paulding even has a jet-capable airport, but it would need to be expanded greatly in order to serve as a commercial reliever airport. However, they can’t easily do that, in part, because the city of Atlanta has apparently changed its tune. Atlanta officials — along with Delta Airlines — oppose the notion of a second airport in the metro area.

“In 2011, the city of Atlanta joined others to study eight possible locations for a second airport, and concluded none of them would bring the right benefit for the cost,” reports 11 Alive News. Atlanta has even sued Paulding to prevent them from building a commercial airport. Atlanta asserts that they have a longstanding agreement with Paulding preventing them from opening a commercial airport, and in a way, Atlanta has geographically made the commercialization of the Paulding airport difficult.

“Paulding’s airport is surrounded by land owned by the city of Atlanta,” reports the Journal-Constitution. They have no desire to see the Paulding airport grow into a commercial hub. “Both Delta and the city view a second airport as a foot in the door that could lead eventually to a rival to Hartsfield-Jackson, the city’s crown jewel for economic development and the citadel hub of Delta’s route system,” reads the same Journal-Constitution article.

That’s an understandable — albeit self-serving — sentiment from Atlanta. They want the revenue from people traveling in and out of their city and airport. Paulding would threaten that. Meanwhile, Delta so opposes a rival airport that it became a topic of negotiation with Atlanta.

A handful of years ago, Delta inked a 20-year lease agreement with the city’s airport. Among the terms, per the Journal-Constitution, was this gem: “The city pledges not to operate any second commercial airport in the region, an idea Delta has long opposed.”

None of this is to say that Paulding is an ideal location for a reliever airport. Some of the locals have opposed attempts to make the plan a reality, getting to Paulding isn’t the easiest for many, and so forth. Nevertheless, a reliever airport of some kind would likely benefit many Georgians.