Some people laughed when the Atlanta airport added “international” to its name 41 years ago. The global traffic consisted of flights to Mexico City and Montego Bay, Jamaica.
But, recalled Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, city leaders of the day had a vision: “We will go plant a flag on a hill and we will eventually build it up.”
This week that figurative flag moves to the top of a gleaming $1.4 billion addition to the airport bearing the name of the city’s first black mayor. The Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal opens Wednesday, creating a new front door to the airport for international fliers. It also includes another 12-gate concourse to handle planes that today fly nonstop to more than 65 foreign cities on five continents.
Now as in 1971, however, the future of international air travel is uncertain. The terminal, planned a decade ago and beset by delays and cost increases, opens amid global economic jitters and high fuel costs that have already prompted international flight pullbacks by airlines including the terminal’s biggest user, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines.
That underscores the fact that flying to places like Africa and the Middle East — or even Europe and Asia — is far more of a gamble for airlines than the milk runs to Chicago, Washington and New York that have made Hartsfield-Jackson the world’s busiest airport.
And that makes massive investments to serve international passengers a gamble as well for airports.
Yet without the new terminal, financed with bonds backed by future airport revenue, Delta executives, city officials and airline experts all contend Atlanta would fall behind in its ability to capitalize on a recovery from the current downturn and future expansion.
The airport’s last big international move was the 1994 opening of Concourse E, which was built specifically to handle international flights but remained tethered to the existing main terminal. It also opened at a time of distress for both domestic and international aviation.
Hartsfield-Jackson handled fewer than 3 million international passengers that year. The number has tripled since then — and the proportion of international fliers at Hartsfield-Jackson has grown as well.
International passenger volume reached 5.8 million in 2000, about 7 percent of the airport’s total. By last year it was 9.9 million, 10.7 percent of the total.
By far the biggest factor in that growth: strategic expansion by Delta, Hartsfield-Jackson’s 1,000-flights-a-day gorilla. Even with recent cuts, the airline launches about 85 nonstop flights a day to international destinations from Atlanta.
A handful of foreign flag carriers also serve Atlanta with passenger flights, but that list has not grown much over the years. If past is prologue, it will primarily be Delta’s international strategies that play out at Atlanta’s new international terminal.
In the short run, that strategy is to pull back a bit from a 2009 jump in international flying. Longer term, look for renewed growth, said one longtime airline watcher, Colorado-based consultant Mike Boyd.
“Delta is going to turn Atlanta into what we call a global portal, where there will be enormous amounts of traffic flows going all over Latin America and all over Asia,” Boyd said.
Delta says its megahub at Hartsfield-Jackson — which the airline already loftily calls its “Atlanta Worldport” — is in an ideal geographic location to collect passengers from all over the United States and the world and spin them out again on connecting flights.
“It’s going to be a global connecting point for some time,” said Bob Cortelyou, senior vice president of network planning for the airline.
For example, he said Delta can take people from Latin America to Europe via Atlanta. Though that doesn’t happen very often now, such global passenger movements are expected to grow as developing economies expand.
The international terminal could make Hartsfield-Jackson more attractive for passengers who have a choice of where to connect, Cortelyou said.
In turn, all the flights those connections support give the Atlanta region nonstop service to places that are harder to reach from most other cities. That means better access to the world for companies and other organizations - a staple of regional business and convention recruitment pitches.
“The connecting hub has way more traffic than Atlanta would support alone,” Boyd said, translating into many more international routes than the city would otherwise merit.
Hartsfield-Jackson is already No. 3 among U.S. airports in international passenger traffic in the most recent federal monthly report, behind Miami and New York-JFK.
But Atlanta faces competition from hubs that have their own strengths in different areas — such as New York’s hugely diverse population and international draw; Detroit’s optimal northerly location and automobile market for Asian cargo business; the West Coast’s role as a connecting point to growing economies in Asia including China; and Miami’s close connections with Latin America.
And that’s just in the United States. Rapidly growing international airport hubs in other countries want to expand and give Hartsfield-Jackson a run for its money as the busiest airport in the world since 1998. In particular, airports in Dubai and Beijing plan massive expansions with designs on taking the title sooner or later.
International travel cycles don’t always match up with airport expansions. Overseas travel is highly susceptible to economic shifts, socio-political turmoil, natural disasters like the Japan earthquakes and terrorist threats.
Airlines still saw a base of domestic airline travel during the recent recession and post 9 /11 fears; Americans always take to the air for business trips, family gatherings and vacations. But when things go bad overseas, airlines sometimes cut much or all of their service to a particular region — such as in the case of political turmoil in Egypt last year.
Some routes that seem promising simply don’t pan out. Delta lobbied intensely for rights to fly nonstop to Shanghai, China, but after starting the route in 2008 the airline dropped it, restarted it and dropped it again. (Delta’s Atlanta-Shanghai fliers now must connect in Detroit.)
Similarly, Delta has sought to establish a critical mass of flights to Africa from Atlanta but has struggled with the complexity of establishing operations in emerging economies.
The upside of international routes — and it is big — is less competition and higher fares, which translate to more revenue per flier for airlines.
That ensures big carriers like Delta will keep trying to find international markets that work. And there are some positive signs despite the latest worries in Europe.
Airline industry group Airlines for America forecasts an uptick in international passenger traffic on U.S. airlines this summer, to 26.8 million passengers from 26.3 million a year earlier.
Hartsfield-Jackson’s general manager, Louis Miller, inherited the terminal project but said he’s confident it will “strengthen our position as a global gateway.”
Still, after the last 12 years of terrorism fears, economic turbulence and political unrest in other parts of the world, he also acknowledged: “There’s no guarantees out there.”