Birmingham’s missed opportunity: How the Magic City missed out on Delta

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By now, most of us have heard the story of Birmingham’s missed opportunity.

Once in the running to be the capital of the Deep South, Birmingham missed out on getting Delta’s major regional airport that ended up in Atlanta. However, though many Alabamians know the story, they may not know why, or what’s next for Birmingham in the search for its next big thing.

I started researching articles on microfilm at Birmingham’s Henley Library and talking with corporate leaders who were involved in trying to lure more airlines and non-stop flights to Birmingham.

Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport serves 3 million passengers a year, a far cry from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The Delta hub serves as the world’s busiest airport with 103 million passengers annually.

Back in 1950, Birmingham and Atlanta were practically the same size, with populations around 300,000.

As the story goes, Delta was considering a move, and Birmingham was at the top of their list of new destinations.

“Delta was looking to relocate because we were and are the geographic center of the southeastern U.S.,” said Stewart Dansby, former Chamber of Commerce chair.

Atlanta’s mayor at the time, William Hartsfield, and the Atlanta business community aggressively lobbied for airport expansion in Atlanta.

Birmingham city leaders, on the other hand, chose not to pursue the emerging airline.

“And they said bye bye and went to Atlanta,” Dansby said. “And the rest is history.”

Former Chamber of Commerce member Frank Young reminded seeing an article about that history.

“It was at least one writer that thought Birmingham’s missed opportunity on the airport in the 50’s was the greatest missed opportunity for any city since World War Two ended,” Young said.

So Atlanta won the battle, becoming the capital of the Deep South. With Delta Airlines firmly entrenched, Atlanta exploded in population and economic development.

So, how did we miss out on Delta? 

“We were still tied up, ensnarled in civil rights issues, a regressive type attitude,” Young said. “Atlanta was closer to being the city too busy to hate.”

Young says beyond Birmingham’s segregation-minded power structure, Alabama lawmakers imposed an aviation fuel tax. Corporate leaders say the tax is just one way Birmingham’s politicians showed they preferred the steel industry over aviation. Also, another overlooked factor is the fact that Birmingham sits in the Central time zone. 

“I think we had a shot.” Young said. “I think if we could have done something about the aviation tax and a little better leadership, we could have overcome the time zone issue.”
    
Atlanta’s airport capitalized as Delta’s headquarters, as Hartsfield-Jackson Airport now generates $52 billion a year in total revenue. Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International brings in just $1 billion in economic impact by comparison.

Recently Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin tried to lure Delta Airlines when he tweeted the business after Georgia lawmakers entered a battle with Delta over the NRA, denying the airline a $50 million jet fuel tax break.

“I want to encourage Delta Airlines or any other corporation to consider Birmingham, where we put people first,” Woodfin said.

As of right now, we remain with no airline hub in Birmingham, no major sports team, and a population at just a fifth of Atlanta’s.

So, what’s next for Birmingham?

“We have a lot going for us,” Dansby said. “And I just think if we have better air service, that will be a big catalyst for this city that is already growing well. But we can grow more, and I think the airlines are going to be a big part of that.” 

Miguel Southwell is the interim CEO of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.

Southwell says they’re working on getting more non-stop flights.

“We’re actually going to be seeking out these airlines, and that is going to be a difference in approach,” Southwell said. “Because in the future, we are actually going to be developing business cases for cities that we think have the potential, and then approaching those airlines.”

Southwell sees Birmingham’s airport as having a world class terminal with many possibilities.

“There is potential for some international flights as well,” Southwell said. “We think that given this strategic location of Birmingham that we could manage to attract flights to Central America and the Caribbean.” 

One of Young’s ideas is to connect walking and biking trails with Railroad Park, Ruffner Park and Red Mountain Park that would create a green line in Birmingham to rival any in the country.

Young believes that it’s a move that could attract young people and a new generation of companies.

Constructing the green line and getting more nonstop flights takes cooperation from corporate leaders, city hall, and surrounding communities. 

There is much optimism about what can happen, so all is not lost with the missed Delta opportunity.

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