Concourse F, International Terminal, at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on February 27, 2019. More than six years since it opened, the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport still struggles with connectivity to the rest of the airport. People going between the international terminal and MARTA or the domestic terminal must still depend on shuttle buses. Arriving international travelers on Concourse E must still walk a distance to get to the international terminal. 
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Flight plan: Get international terminal on board with rest of airport

When the international terminal opened on the east end of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in 2012, it was heralded as a major expansion that created a second entrance to the world’s busiest airport.

But nearly seven years into its operation, the Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal still poses some challenges for international travelers who want to use MARTA or for others who need to move between the international terminal and the domestic terminal without clearing security.

Now, some are looking at a variety of alternatives to move people more efficiently to and from the international terminal, ranging from new transit options to changes aimed at easing passenger movements.

Yet it won’t be an easy fix, in part because traffic flows at the airport are restricted between people who are cleared to fly and those who are not, and international arriving passengers who have cleared Customs and those who have not.

“Airports and airlines are thinking a lot about how to improve the customer experience and to make everything as seamless as possible,” said Robert Bertini, director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. “It’s kind of a multilevel logistics challenge, plus you have the additional need for security.”

Connection conniptions

Most of the Atlanta airport’s infrastructure is on the domestic terminal side, including MARTA, off-airport parking lots and the rental car center.

While free shuttle buses are employed to take international terminal passengers to MARTA and other domestic terminal destinations, the airport’s Plane Train automated people-mover is the preferred way to whisk between the terminals and concourses.

Trouble is, in some cases, the Plane Train can be frustratingly off-limits. Once travelers have claimed their bags and exited the secure area of the airport, they can’t re-board the Plane Train to get to MARTA or parking at the other side of the airport without going through security. And that requires a boarding pass for another flight.

“It’s stupid,” said traveler Lynne Sander, who lives in Roswell. “If I come in international, I should be able to get on the train and go all the way over to pick up MARTA at domestic and leave.”

Instead, he said, “You’ve got to claim your bag, you’ve got to sit there and wait for the shuttle to arrive, fight the crowd. … It’s a pain in the butt.”

Concourse F, International Terminal, at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on February 27, 2019. More than six years since it opened, the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport still struggles with connectivity to the rest of the airport. People going between the international terminal and MARTA or the domestic terminal must still depend on shuttle buses. Arriving international travelers on Concourse E must still walk a distance to get to the international terminal. 
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Check-in challenges

Another issue: While Delta Air Lines has check-in counters at the international terminal, other domestic carriers do not.

If international passengers arriving in Atlanta are connecting to a domestic flight on another airline and their bags are not checked through to their final destination, they may need to clear Customs at the international terminal, then take their baggage on a 15-minute shuttle bus ride along the perimeter road surrounding the airfield to get to the domestic terminal and check their bags again.

They can’t take the Plane Train — which grants access to departure gates — if they have checked luggage containing items not allowed in an airplane cabin.

“That is not a good experience, to get your luggage and go get on a bus,” said Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden.

The airport is exploring the idea of a common-use check-in counter at the international terminal that would service multiple airlines. The thought is passengers could check-in or check bags, then use their boarding pass to go through security, get on the Plane Train, and connect to their domestic flight.

Trains, planes, automobiles

In an effort to add transportation options between the domestic and international terminals and to destinations north of the airport, the Aerotropolis Atlanta community improvement districts — which represent property owners around the airport — are pursuing a “Corporate Crescent Circulator” bus project.

Their goal is to work with MARTA and the new Atlanta-Transit Region Transit Link Authority to propose bus service from the domestic terminal to areas such as College Park, Hapeville and the Mountain View area and ending at the international terminal.

A new bus line could give business travelers and tourists arriving at the airport another option to get to hotels or offices, said Aerotropolis Atlanta CIDs program director Kirsten Mote.

The area they’ve dubbed the Corporate Crescent north of the airfield includes Delta’s headquarters and the Delta Flight Museum, Porsche North America’s headquarters and test track, and Woodward Academy.

Another hope is for the bus service to get priority treatment at traffic signals, and potentially, self-driving buses in the future.

Mote said aerotropolis officials will explore technologies. But “initially we’re looking at a regular bus,” she said. “We see a big demand for a high-frequency, highly efficient service.”

Concourse F, International Terminal, at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on February 27, 2019. More than six years since it opened, the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport still struggles with connectivity to the rest of the airport. People going between the international terminal and MARTA or the domestic terminal must still depend on shuttle buses. Arriving international travelers on Concourse E must still walk a distance to get to the international terminal. 
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Customs clearance

One issue for Hartsfield-Jackson’s international travelers has already improved.

International flights arrive on international Concourses E and F. But for arriving international travelers bound for Atlanta who haven’t yet cleared Customs, in order to get from Concourse E to the international terminal’s baggage claim, they can’t get on the Plane Train — because that would allow them to exit the airport without clearing Customs. Those travelers used to have to walk up to 6/10 of a mile to Concourse F to get to Customs.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Atlanta area port director Carey Davis said there were “a great number of concerns written into both the airport and Delta, that they were having to walk a long way and stand in line.”

Then late last year, CBP started processing Atlanta-bound international passengers on Concourse E if they arrive at a gate there. Those passengers then continue walking to Concourse F, where they show a receipt to get through a special door to baggage claim, then exit the airport at the international terminal.

While passengers still walk the same distance, they no longer have to wind through half a mile of hallways before clearing Customs.

“The complaints have almost disappeared,” Davis said.

Can’t shelve shuttles

What won’t vanish in the foreseeable future are Atlanta airport’s shuttles. They will still be used by international travelers going to MARTA, as well as some others.

Some airport workers use the shuttle to move between the international and domestic terminals. The general manager wants to reduce the number of passengers who have to take the shuttle, and operate the shuttle less frequently.

Selden said the airport spends $5 million a year to operate the complimentary shuttles, which run every five minutes to help passengers make connections.

“We could reduce our costs” by decreasing demand and operating shuttles less frequently, Selden said.

But that could increase the wait time for those who need the shuttle, including MARTA passengers taking international flights.

Sander, the international traveler, is not enthused about the idea of waiting longer for a shuttle to get to MARTA.

“We’re supposed to have this grandiose airport with all the bells and whistles and it’s 1970” with shuttle buses, Sander said. “It’s kind of ridiculous to have this fancy airport (when) it’s almost like having two separate airports. They’re together but they’re not really linked.”

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