If Miguel Southwell has his way, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport will eventually have a hotel, better parking and even a pet kennel.
Those are a few of the improvements Southwell has in mind as he steps into the position of general manager of the world’s busiest airport, after holding the post on an interim basis since January.
The airport is already set to get a long-awaited improvement next month: Free wi-fi. But Southwell also has other ideas in mind.
In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Southwell shared his plans to address travelers’ complaints and make improvements for the future
The top complaint from travelers coming through Hartsfield-Jackson is the lack of free wi-fi — an amenity offered at other airports large and small for years.
But it’s not as simple as flipping a switch. After a delay in earlier plans to upgrade the wi-fi infrastructure for a huge surge in demand, the airport contracted for the work earlier this year. Price tag: at least $3.6 million. Initial hopes had been for a start as early as March, but but the airport is now targeting June 4 for the launch of free wi-fi.
Southwell said he also wants more power outlets throughout the airport.
“Today’s travelers want to be able to sit in their seats and charge phones,” Southwell said. He has been discussing the idea with airlines, which control many of the gate areas.
A key frustration for travelers during the busiest travel periods of the year is the difficulty of finding a good parking spot in airport garages. Early phases of the airport’s ongoing master plan review found the airport will eventually run short of parking in certain areas around the domestic terminal, and Southwell said the decades-old garages also need to be replaced.
“They are past their useful life in terms of effectively maintaining them,” Southwell said. “At some point it’s just better to rebuild them.”
With that, the plan is for new parking garages with more spaces and pedestrian walkways to the terminal. And separating cars on the roadways from people crossing the street will reduce traffic congestion around the terminal and improve safety.
Southwell estimates the demolition and rebuilding of the parking garages with more spaces could cost more than $500 million and be phased in over five to eight years.
And after a contractor launched GreenCoat Auto Concierge valet service last year, the airport plans to add valet parking this fall, while also rebidding the airport’s massive parking contract.
“Every world class airport has a hotel,” Southwell said. The airport has been studying the prospect of a hotel connected to the domestic terminal or in the terminal, and is exploring how to finance it — whether with public financing or private sector money.
“We believe that an airport hotel is absolutely essential,” particularly for distressed passengers whose flights are canceled, Southwell said.
Meanwhile, the airport has also assessed all real estate parcels it owns around the terminal and airfield, with the idea of turning dormant parcels into revenue-producers.
The possibilities include office space for airport businesses or agencies near the terminal. Southwell said the airport also plans to to contract for a a travel plaza with a gas station, convenience store and possibly dry cleaning and a pet hotel.
Southwell envisions the Atlanta airport offering customer service akin to a five-star hotel — with customer service representatives escorting travelers to where they need to go rather than just pointing in that general direction.
Southwell acknowledges that at an airport serving nearly 250,000 passengers daily, such service is “a major challenge” and “costly to deliver.”
His idea is to at least double the number of volunteers who provide customer service at the airport, targeting students through college and university hospitality programs, as well as retirees.
The airport is even considering running a shuttle from senior residential communities to the airport to ease one of the main concerns for volunteers at the airport: paying for parking.
Hartsfield-Jackson this year is launching its first incentive program to attract more international flights, as it competes with other airports for connections to Asia, Latin America and Europe.
Projections once envisioned the Atlanta airport handling 121 million passengers by 2015. Passenger growth hasn’t met those forecasts, with 1 percent decline last year to 94.4 million passengers.
At many airports, “It’s a combination of the impact of first, 9/11, and then the Great Recession,” said airport consultant Bill Fife.
In Atlanta, the master plan review has examined plans for a sixth runway and terminal expansion. But the deceleration of growth has made that less urgent, while increasing the need to attract more flights and international service.
The offer of flight incentives including promotional funds and fee waivers sends a positive message to airlines, but “the community has to find ways to earn that business,” Southwell said.
He hopes to work with the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau and retailers to promote shopping in Atlanta for foreign visitors, with the business community to attract more business travel, with Grady Hospital to form alliances for medical tourism and with colleges and universities to attract international students.
“People come here to visit because of what Atlanta offers,” Southwell said.