Atlanta airport's ‘new front door' to open in spring

The Atlanta airport’s new $1.4 billion international terminal, which will change the way some travelers use the sprawling complex, is entering the final stretch of construction after a long and bumpy journey.

Now set to open next spring -- six years after the initial target date -- the terminal will create “a new front door to the airport,” said Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Louis Miller, by offering an access point on the east side, off I-75.

The terminal is mainly designed for passengers using the adjacent international gate concourses. One of its most-touted features: it will bring an end to the cumbersome baggage process now required of Atlanta-bound international travelers. If flying with checked luggage, they must recheck it after clearing customs, then pick it up again after taking the airport train to the distant main terminal.

At the same time, one task for airport officials is making sure local travelers and regular visitors, long used to coming and going from one terminal for all flights, don’t end up in the wrong place.

In addition to the terminal itself, the project includes a new Concourse F with 12 more gates for international flights, enabling main tenant Delta Air Lines and other carriers to grow overseas schedules.

Work is about 75 percent complete. The massive project represents the biggest expansion of passenger facilities at Hartsfield-Jackson since the completion of international Concourse E in 1994.

It also brings a dose of flash -- at least in comparison to the boxy main terminal -- with an exterior marked by curved lines and glass walls. Inside, the centerpiece is an atrium filled with natural light.

Miller said airport managers are keenly aware of the need to avoid undue confusion about who can use which terminal.

“The challenge we’re going to face,” Miller said, “is educating the public on the different entrances for the airport.”

Coming from downtown, domestic travelers will be advised to still take I-85 south to the main terminal as they do now. International travelers will need to take I-75 for the international terminal.

The airport plans to spend $10 million for new highway and road signs to make the different paths clear.

“It’s the first time in our history to have two entrances” to the airport, said Holden Shannon, senior vice president of corporate strategy and real estate at Delta Air Lines, the airport’s biggest carrier. “It also poses some risks that passengers won’t go to the correct terminal.”

Passengers can check-in with Delta at either terminal, no matter what type of flight they are taking, and some domestic passengers with carry-ons only may find the I-75 access handier. But those checking bags or parking will want to be at the same side of the airport where their bags will arrive and where their car is parked.

Some services such as MARTA, remain accessible only from the main terminal. So the airport will have a free shuttle bus connecting the international terminal, the rental car center, the domestic terminal and MARTA.

It also will ferry any passengers who, for whatever reason, wind up on the wrong end of the airport and need to get to the other terminal.

Less dramatic design features of the new terminal include 14 close-in parking spaces for alternative fuel vehicles and a 25,000-cubic-foot box to collect rainwater from the roof and filter it before releasing it back into groundwater.

The terminal will include $5 million worth of art, part of a public art master plan that calls for setting aside 1 percent of certain monies including airport construction funds for art. The artwork will include a hanging piece of thousands of internally lit Swarovski crystals; a hanging sculpture that moves to resemble aircraft contrails; and a painted acrylic and glass panel installation.

In addition to a new Delta Sky Club on Concourse F, the airport plans to offer sleep units and a lounge open for a fee to travelers on any airline.

Shannon said the new Concourse F will enable Delta to put all international departures on one of the two international concourses, and that tarmac wait times for arriving international flights will be “virtually eliminated” because more gates will be available.

The concept of a separate international terminal dates to construction of Concourse E, which was always envisioned as tying into a separate entry point. Airport management began planning the project more than 10 years ago, when Hartsfield was forecast to handle about 121 million passengers by 2015.

Since then, airline financial struggles and an economic meltdown intervened. The passenger count was 89 million last year, still 1 million off the 2008 peak, and forecasts are for about 102 million by 2015.

The project’s early stages were marked by cost inflation, delays, design disputes and conflicts with main tenant Delta, which has a huge stake in -- and influence on -- any major physical changes at the airport.The first design firm was fired and the project had to be reset, leading to litigation and higher costs. Opening date targets were pushed to 2008, then 2010, and finally 2012.

Nearly three years ago, Delta and the airport butted heads over the price tag, which had risen from under $1 billion originally to $1.7 billion at the time. Airlines indirectly shoulder the cost of airport projects through lease payments and passenger fees they collect. The issue spilled into negotiations on a new airport lease for Delta, and the cost was cut back.

Bond financing for the terminal is in place, the project is on budget, according to airport officials, and the airport and Delta are on better terms.

“With a building this size and scale . . . the cost per passenger is going to go up significantly in the early years, but it’s a 30-year asset,” Shannon said. “So really how we look at it is putting the bedrock down . . . We look at it as a long-term investment.”

But the coast isn’t completely clear. The airport recently made a controversial decision to start over the process to contract for new shops and restaurants for the new terminal and the rest of the airport, citing documentation problems with initial submissions.

The move could push the international terminal opening date a few weeks, though Miller still expects it to be in the spring.

The Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal

  • Is named for the former Atlanta mayor, who died in 2003.
  • Will be accessible from Interstate 75 on the east side of the airport.
  • All international passengers will check-in at the new international terminal.
  • Atlanta-bound arriving international passengers will no longer have to recheck their baggage for a trip to the main terminal.
  • The terminal has 1.2 million square feet of space.
  • The project includes a new 12-gate concourse, known as Concourse F.
  • The complex connects via the automated people mover system to the existing 28-gate international concourse E and to the domestic concourses.
  • Will have 1,100 short-term parking spaces, as well as 2,500 long-term spaces reachable via shuttle.
  • Will have eight security checkpoint lanes for departing international passengers, and five recheck lanes for domestic connecting passengers.

Source: Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport