Hartsfield-Jackson's fifth runway hits 10th birthday

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport's fifth runway, dubbed the "Most Important Runway in America" when it opened, turns 10 years old on May 27.

The 9,000-foot runway cost $1.28 billion to build, and was seen as critical to relieve air traffic congestion along the East Coast. It was built with two bridges crossing I-285 that can can support up to 1.3 million pounds.

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

"This runway is going to cut delays, save the airlines money and improve customer service," said then-general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Ben DeCosta in 2006.

Called Runway 10-28, it averages more than 100,000 landings and takeoffs a year, according to Hartsfield-Jackson.

Officials at the world's busiest airport say the runway saves the airline industry $260 million annually in delay costs.

The most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics show that Hartsfield-Jackson had an on-time rate of about 82.1 percent for departing flights and 84.4 percent of flights arrived on time in 2015.

That's better than the 71.8 percent on-time arrival performance for Hartsfield-Jackson in 2005, the year before the new runway opened.

The runway itself was not expected to attract more flights, but was expected to reduce delays.

The fifth runway project started off with a whiff of scandal. Contractor C.R. "Ronnie" Thornton plead guilty to making $130,000 in illegal campaign contributions to then-Mayor Bill Campbell in a failed bid to win a big deal to bring in dirt to level off the site for the new runway.

Airport officials said ten years ago that they couldn't imagine building another runway after the fifth one, partly because there was little room left.

"I don't think we'll ever build another new runway, " DeCosta said then.

Yet times change. Hartsfield-Jackson is now expecting in its master plan to build a sixth runway, squeezing it in north of the fifth runway, based on expectations that improvements in precision air traffic control will enable the closely-spaced runway to handle flights at the same time as nearby runways.

The front page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's metro section the day after Hartsfield-Jackson's fifth runway opened:

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi