Hartsfield-Jackson Soars to New Heights
The world’s busiest airport is ever improving, with expanded concourses, state-of-the-art parking lots, enhanced technology and a better customer experience.
Across the country, the aviation industry is experiencing resurgent demand for air travel, resulting in more investment in airport infrastructure across North America than ever before. Larger security checkpoints, more reliable and faster baggage systems, better roadways and multimodal connections are just some of the improvements passengers will see nationwide.
That consumer demand is alive and well at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the first airport in history to serve more than 1 million passengers in a single year and once again the busiest airport in the world. Always focused on the efficiency of its operations, the airport moves some 250,000 passengers a day through its facilities. Whether passengers are flying to a nearby city or the other side of the world, the goal is to keep them moving and keep them happy.
Hartsfield-Jackson routinely receives industry recognition for setting the bar when it comes to concessions, operations, sustainability, architectural engineering and construction. Along with the ports of Savannah and Brunswick, the Atlanta airport is among the crown jewels of economic development that made Georgia the No. 1 state for business for the ninth consecutive year, and it boasts a direct economic impact of $66 billion for the state.
With that volume of activity and ever-changing improvements in aviation technology, keeping such a large facility up to date is an ongoing challenge. Toward that end, the airport’s capital improvement program, ATLNext, includes an $11 billion to-do list that encompasses expansion of Concourse D, two new parking decks, updated technology, expansion of the ticket lobby, and improvements to the Plane Train and SkyTrain systems.
Efficiency Top of Mind
Being the global leader in airport efficiency and exceptional customer service is the vision at Hartsfield-Jackson, says Frank Rucker, airport deputy general manager of infrastructure. Scheduling projects like the $1.4 billion Concourse D expansion align with that vision.
“We realize our facility is aging … so we’re constantly looking at either renewal or replacement of existing systems, that critical infrastructure for handling capacity because we have shown continued long-term growth,” he says, noting Concourses A, B, C and D were constructed and opened in 1980. Concourse D, specifically, was constructed at 60 feet wide to accommodate regional jets. In comparison, A, B and C are 90 feet wide.
“That 30-foot differential means a lot,” says Rucker, noting the airport now accommodates larger planes on that concourse and will expand it to 99 feet. “If you’ve ever gone through Concourse D, you know how congested it can get, especially when they’re boarding aircraft and people are in there queuing, so it’s not a very good customer service offering.”
While a regional jet accommodates 50 to 75 passengers, larger planes such as a 737 or an Airbus A321 carry around 150 passengers, says Rucker. “As airlines upgauge their fleets to larger aircraft … it just necessitated the need to expand,” he says.
Undertaking such a large expansion project at the world’s busiest airport while maintaining quality customer experience is quite a feat. While it would have made the project much easier, closing the entire concourse for the length of the project was never an option, says Rucker. To impact travel as little as possible, both in terms of convenience for passengers and dollars for the airlines, only eight gates will be taken out of service at a time. Through the reconfiguration, Concourse D will drop from 40 gates to 34 when the expansion is complete.
“It’s going to be quite a complicated piece of work, from a standpoint of how we are going to construct it,” says Rucker. “It’ll be the first time we utilize what we call modular construction.”
For the first two phases, two 30-foot frames – to flank each side of the existing concourse – will be constructed offsite and brought in and positioned precisely by self-propelled motorized transit vehicles that move at walking speed and can transport large structures. Phase three will be traditional construction onsite. All told, the Concourse D expansion will take about six years, with a completion date for the entire project set for April 2029, he says.
So, what about those smaller regional planes delivering smaller groups of passengers?
“At that point, the whole facility will be sized for the upgraded fleet, or the upgauge, as the airlines like to reference it. Those small planes will get fewer and fewer and eventually probably go away,” he says, noting they will be accommodated until then. “Now, when the airlines will stop flying those, you know, it depends on which airlines you talk to. But ultimately, they want to put more people on those flights.”
Also, to improve efficiency in accommodating the increasing number of passengers, in December the airport opened its Concourse T North extension, a $341 million project that added more than 35,000 square feet of concourse and concessions space.
Another piece of ATLNext is the ongoing parking deck renewal project, which will shore up the parking facilities with the goal of prolonging the decks’ lifespan until they eventually need to be replaced. South deck repairs cost approximately $17 million and will extend the parking deck’s life by roughly five years. North deck repairs will cost approximately $20 million to extend that deck’s life by 10 years. While improvements are ongoing, 3,000 North deck spaces have remained available throughout the project. The complete replacement of both the North and South decks will take place over the coming years.
“Our parking program over the next 10 years will be very robust,” says Rucker, adding that a phased plan includes complete demolition and reconstruction of the North and South terminal decks.
Construction of the new South deck begins this month in the north half of the current South Economy Lot, says Rucker.
Once completed, the new South deck will be seven levels tall and include about 7,800 parking stalls. Like ATL West deck, the new South deck will feature state-of-the-art components such as digital parking space availability and wayfinding, ticketless entry and exit, LED lighting and other features to provide a seamless parking experience.
In addition, crews will enhance airport technology throughout the facility, expand the North terminal ticket lobby and reconfigure the rest of the lobby, he says. Ongoing airfield projects will continue to refresh pavement, and a lot of work is planned for the Plane Train that travels along three miles of underground track to move passengers throughout the airport, as well as the elevated SkyTrain that connects the passenger terminal to the rental car center, adds Rucker.
Passengers will see renewal of vertical transportation systems – elevators and escalators – and updates of technological infrastructure for better Wi-Fi and better service systems, adds J’Aimeka “Jai” Ferrell, the airport’s deputy general manager and chief commercial officer. “Some of the airports are also going to AI and different types of EV-based products and equipment, and we have to have infrastructure to support that.”
More work on concourses is also planned, including a major job on Concourse E as the airport begins to replace some of the critical operating systems and make some architectural modifications to bring a new, more modern feel to the concourse.
Hartsfield-Jackson recently reactivated its air carrier incentive program, designed to stimulate cargo and passenger growth, particularly along routes that link Atlanta to the world’s fastest-growing economies and air cargo traffic.
“What people don’t realize is that cargo service is the core business of many airlines, especially the international routes. So, we’re able to not just have new goods and services coming through the airport, but also jobs and economic opportunities locally and abroad in those respective regions,” says Ferrell.
Ferrell says the current focus is on regions in Africa and Asia because analysis by the air service development team shows those are the most underserved markets coming out of Hartsfield-Jackson.
“So, if we’re able to serve those markets … it’s not just an incentive for passengers or for tourism but also economics,” says Ferrell, noting the first airline chosen from Africa for the program was Ethiopian Airlines, which launched its first Atlanta passenger flights in May.
Also critical is keeping up with customer expectations for the airport, such as restaurants with a local bent, workstations for business travelers, immersive art opportunities and automated checkpoints. Air travelers, especially those with long layovers, have become more demanding when it comes to the quality of food service and retail options available while they wait. To keep things fresh, says Ferrell, the airport offers solicitation periods during which companies can apply for their shop or restaurant to have a space in the airport.
“Many of our contracts have seven-year terms with three-year renewal options, sometimes five-year terms with five- or two-year renewal options,” says Ferrell. “It just depends on the concept, the location and the activity of the concourse.”
The airport is in a phase solicitation process over the next 36 months to reimagine over 300,000 square feet, the largest makeover yet of its dining and retail options, she says. The scale of the project is due to terminating leases, new space from concourse expansions and spaces that have been “given back” such as the now-closed smoking areas.
The onslaught of self-service technology and innovation, prompted by the pandemic’s no-touch practices, will be widely used by the incoming food and beverage concessionaires. “Having this solicitation phase is perfect timing, so we can build the airport for the future instead of responding to the one we had before.”
Ferrell says the airport is concentrating on vendors with regional and local flavor “to provide a sense of place and taste of Atlanta and of Georgia.” In addition, more and more people are requesting health- and wellness-oriented food and beverage options.
“We’re considering that, but everything that we do from a concessions’ perspective … is [both] data- and market-driven,” she says, noting concessions consultants on the team provide updates on the industry and market, passenger profiles and data on what people are willing to spend versus what they want to access.
The updated concessions concepts will be announced in the third quarter of this year, says Ferrell.
“We’ve got to build some capacity here; we don’t want people to be on top of each other. Not to mention the technological innovations we’re making at our queuing lanes and checkpoints, the concessions … biometric screening, bag drop, even our parking products. We’re trying to see how we can retrofit a facility that was built for a different purpose 40 years ago, to handle a capacity that exceeds hundreds of millions,” says Ferrell.
The biggest challenge, she continues, is that the airport’s footprint is about 4,700 acres. “Most airports are 10 times that size, and we’re trying to build capacity in an occupied space … We can’t just build a building and then people come to it; we’re trying to build it while people are in it, so we have to be strategic about our approach.”
Behind the Scenes
Completing major construction projects in the world’s busiest airport requires some stealth. “It’s all about the customer experience, so we don’t want to, as a general contractor, impact the customer experience,” says Derek Mosiman, vice president and division manager in the Atlanta office of Swinerton construction company. “With everything we do, we try to be as invisible as possible and provide the least amount of disruption. You’re working in an active environment, so our primary work shift is during off hours, from 10:30 at night to 4:30 in the morning.”
Involved in Atlanta airport projects for the past six years, Swinerton construction company was recently named one of four managing general contractors (MGC) on-call for the city of Atlanta. The role puts the company at Hartsfield-Jackson on a full-time basis for on-call work when there are urgent projects, Mosiman says.
Swinerton has also completed a number of major projects at the airport, including elevator and escalator modifications. This summer, crews were busy with a $7.5 million painting job on the exterior of Concourses E and T.
Concealing the work behind temporary walls and keeping equipment such as scaffolding out of site helps the contractors stay “invisible,” says Mosiman, who works frequently with Atlanta’s minority- and woman-owned WEBMyers Construction on many of its airport projects. Swinerton and WEBMyers are currently working on two managing general contractor (MGC) jobs for which construction should begin this month.
There is no end to renewal and expansion of a facility like Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. As long as there is air travel, passengers will continue to expect modern and efficient facilities. And that’s just what the world’s busiest airport intends to provide.
Wings for All
While millions of passengers a day board planes around the world for flights both short and long, the process of navigating an airport and the anxiety of not knowing what to expect on a flight can be traumatic for those with autism spectrum disorder or developmental disabilities. Delta Air Lines and The Arc of Georgia joined forces several years ago to host Wings for All, scheduled walkthroughs or tours of the airport that allow participants to experience airport security, navigate the terminal and board a plane just like they would on a real trip.
The scheduled events bring together families and airline, airport and security personnel to experience the pre-flight process so everyone is aware of what to expect when taking a flight. The experience can mean the difference between a successful trip and the unwarranted flagging of an individual for unusual behavior, according to The Arc.
Travelers with autism spectrum disorder or other disabilities can also participate in monthly airport tours hosted by Delta, during which pilot and flight attendants explain the process of air travel and how to make trips as smooth as possible. The tours also include a visit to the airline’s sensory room at Hartsfield-Jackson, which is accessible on request at the information desk on Concourse F. The space provides a calming environment for people during their travels.