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"DeCosta brings runway in for smooth landing"
Sunday, May 21, 2006
DeCosta brings runway in for smooth landing
By Rachel Tobin Ramos
The Atlanta (GA) Business Chronicle
Benjamin R. DeCosta wasn't born in the South.
But for the past eight years, the 60-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native and
Atlanta airport general manager has been navigating the political winds
blowing through Atlanta as he attempted to complete the $1.28 billion fifth
runway at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
The massive project will be felt through commercial aviation nationwide,
saving airlines millions of dollars each week by reducing delays.
At the May 16 ceremony to inaugurate the runway, DeCosta publicly thanked
Harold Bevis, a Delta lobbyist and former Lake City, Ga., mayor, for
introducing him to the ways of this Southern mecca.
"Ben wasn't used to dealing with the politics," said Bevis, the former vice
president of public affairs of Delta Air Lines Inc.
Before he moved to Atlanta, DeCosta was general manager of Newark
International Airport, where he worked for the unelected board of The Port
Authority of New York and New Jersey. In Atlanta, the airport is owned by
the city, and officials like DeCosta report directly to elected politicians.
"In 1998, when I got here," DeCosta admitted to the crowd of well-wishers at
the runway opening, "I was pretty good at speaking New York and I don't
think I was that good at speaking Southern."
But completing the fifth runway would require a gentle touch backed by the
city's significant resources.
With the help of Bevis -- someone who knew the time-honored rituals of City
Hall and whom DeCosta called a "godsend" -- DeCosta started building
relationships with Atlanta City Council members, and schmoozing the mayor of
He even eventually won over Clayton Commission Chairman Crandle Bray to the
idea of a fifth runway. Bray had once said the runway would be built over
his "dead body."
"He was a quick learner," Bevis says of DeCosta.
But now, the 9,000-foot fifth runway, which was DeCosta's top priority in
1998, is done.
"I might say this is my baby," DeCosta told the crowd of dignitaries at the
runway opening, "but this is our legacy."
A sometimes bumpy ride
Still, the going hasn't always been easy.
Last year, the Atlanta City Council gave DeCosta a $32,000 raise, making him
the highest paid city official at $240,000 per year. Yet, his contract was
limited to a two-year term.
This year, he was scrutinized for the uptick in costs for airport terminal
renovations -- the project crept to more than $60 million, although the
council eventually approved it.
Some have also criticized DeCosta for being too much of a stickler for
details, micromanaging his staff, and knowing intricate details of airport
DeCosta is the kind of manager who walks around the airport with a digital
camera in hand to document problems.
"Ben's a physicist and lawyer by trade. He's a focused, hands-on type of
manager. But I told him, 'Ben, you've got to let your people run the
facilities, and you run the political side,' " Bevis said.
Mario Diaz, the deputy airport general manager, says DeCosta has matured in
his years in Atlanta. They had worked together at the Port Authority since
"He's mellowed and has 360-degree sight -- he sees things coming," Diaz
DeCosta now says it's his goal to have a strong bench. "If I get hit by a
bus, you won't even notice," he said.
DeCosta is an avid golfer, and said he is learning how to play Texas hold'em
poker. He's been married to his wife, Milly, for 23 years.
>From running track to runway
His path to airport general manager, however, wasn't laid out as straight as
the new runway.
DeCosta was born in Brooklyn in 1945, one of four children.
"Bennie was a cheerful and intelligent child," said brother Charles DeCosta,
70, a retired New York city police sergeant who attended the runway opening
with his wife, Greta. He said his brother liked science and math growing up.
Their father was a self-taught electronics engineer who never completed
college, but "was really kind of a genius," said Ben.
His family moved to Queens, where he later graduated from Queens College
with a degree in physics.
DeCosta ran track in high school and college. He was a high jumper, hurdler
and sprinter. In college, he was a gymnast, competing on the high bar.
He said that although he's almost 6 foot 2 inches and could jump high enough
to slam dunk a basketball, his hands were too small to grip the ball, which
is why he never played basketball.
DeCosta later graduated from New York Law School, one of three
African-Americans in a class of 142 students. Already working for the Port
Authority, he said several mentors hired him in the law department to work
on aviation issues.
DeCosta later was chosen by the Port Authority for executive training at
Harvard University's Kennedy School of Public Administration, and over time
he rose to general manager of the Newark airport.
In 1988, DeCosta was hired by Campbell to run Hartsfield-Jackson, replacing
DeCosta hopes to stay at Hartsfield another five years. After that? He said
he might want to try to run a public school system. "In many school systems,
50 percent of the students don't graduate on time. I think there's got to be
a way of changing that."
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