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The future of more than 100 restaurants and shops at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (ATL) is now uncertain due to recent political strife over contract negotiations with Atlanta’s City Council.

The turmoil is leaving food courts and shop fronts in ATL’s concourses sitting vacant. Ultimately, this means fewer food and drink options for passengers and longer lines for food service at existing restaurants.

Contracts for many new restaurants have been delayed since 2017, caught in a sea of red tape as corruption allegations swirl around the bidding process. A federal bribery investigation was opened into the concession’s bidding process by both the FBI and IRS in 2017.

In February of 2017, Atlanta’s Chief Procurement Officer Adam Smith, the official in charge of negotiating all contracts for the city, was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit bribery. Prosecutors said he accepted bribes from city vendors — to the tune of 40 bribes at about $1,000 a pop, every two weeks for two years.

There was another scandal with the restaurant contracts, too, when officials discovered one of the food vendors, Hojeij Branded Foods, was linked to a company run by the wife of an airport executive. That executive was fired in March.

Now, the contracts are stuck in limbo, with City Council officials wondering if they should all be scrapped and rebid.

“Do we need to rebid all those contracts?” Transportation Committee Chair Andre Dickens asked the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I imagine that the conversations being had right now are surrounding, ‘Well, when and where was Adam [Smith] in the process of any of these? It would by my expectation that if Adam Smith was involved in the process of any [request for proposal] making or decision, then they need to be rebid.”

The vacant areas encompass an entire food court in Concourse C (that has sat empty stuck in the bidding process for years) and two locations in Concourse B, the Journal-Constitution reports. And adding to the confusion is the fact that contracts for current restaurants in Concourse E — whose tenures were extended in a rush without going through the competitive bidding process — have been identified to be held by major campaign contributors to former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

The delays come at a time when airports are looking to make a profit any way they can. Especially because ride-hailing apps are cutting into airports’ parking profits — the traditional sources of about 40% of their cash. Food and beverage spending is the fastest-growing part of airports’ concession business, according to the Airports Council International — North America. In 2017, gross sales for airport concessions exceeded $1 billion for the first time ever, Bloomberg reports. More than 100 million passengers passed through ATL in 2017, most probably needing to purchase something to eat or drink.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (DFW) even began testing “smart windows” in restaurants to make the spaces cooler and more comfortable for customers and increase their so-called linger time, enticing them to spend more.

But before Hartsfield-Jackson can get a bigger piece of those profits, it has to address the restaurant contracts in sitting in limbo. “We’ve had conversations with the mayor’s office about when we plan on actually releasing those [contracts],” Roosevelt Council, ATL’s general manager told the Journal-Constitution. “We’re still in a decision matrix for that.”

Featured image by Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images.

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