Hartsfield-Jackson International will soon start work on a $6 billion expansion and makeover that will update the domestic terminal and concourses, introduce new features like a hotel and eventually add another concourse and runway to the world’s busiest airport.
It’s part of a 20-year plan aimed at maintaining Hartsfield-Jackson’s status as a leading airport, replacing aging facilities and enabling growth.
It won’t be easy on travelers. The plan entails a series of construction projects in different areas of the airport, which could change traffic patterns both inside and out.
Maintaining regular operations during the work “is going to be probably one of the more complicated things,” said Frank Rucker, the airport’s assistant general manager of planning.
First up: Work starts in coming months on a new parking deck next to the Georgia International Convention Center that will be used while the domestic terminal parking garages are demolished and replaced in years to come.
Later in 2016, after the busy summer season, concourse renovations will begin. The project includes lifted ceilings and added glass for a more open look, as well as new waiting area furniture.
Massive canopies over the curbside pick-up and drop-off areas will also be coming within a couple years, along with updates to the atrium and north terminal ticketing area.
“A lot of the focus right out of the gate will be on upgrading our facilities,” Rucker said.
Airport officials and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed will tout the plan at what’s billed as an inaugural “State of the Airport” event at the Georgia World Congress Center on Thursday.
The event, expected to draw 750 people with skin in the airport game, is hosted by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and World Trade Center Atlanta. It will be emceed by hyper-voluble CNN anchor and aviation correspondent Richard Quest.
The building and renovation program, which airport officials call ATLNext, stems from development of an updated airport master plan in 2014.
Master plans are not binding, and longer-term elements, such as another runway or more concourses, depend on how passenger growth plays out. But most major items in Hartsfield-Jackson’s last master plan — a fifth runway, international terminal and new rental car complex — got built.
The airport already has begun hiring contractors to manage the renovation of the terminal, the demolition and reconstruction of bigger parking garages and an expansion of cargo facilities, among other projects.
Much of the work will happen in the next eight years, when the airport plans to do up to $4 billion worth of construction.
Parking deck headaches
One of the biggest headaches for travelers is still years away: tear down and reconstruction of the aging parking decks, set to start in 2021. During some seven years of construction, many passengers who normally park in the garages will use the replacement parking garage — but they they will have to take the Sky Train people-mover to get to the terminal.
“That is going to cause quite a bit of commotion,” Rucker acknowledged.
The hassle during the years-long parking reconstruction “seems to be the one area where Atlanta travelers will be shorted,” said Joe Leader, a Dunwoody resident who is CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association.
“People enjoy being within walking distance of the airport … It’s the one major shortfall because [for] Atlantans, the sacredness of our cars is quite near and dear to our hearts.”
The end result will be new parking decks with eight levels, vs. four now.
Some other projects, such as a new “end-around” taxiway off the end of one of the runways, will displace existing airport-run park-ride lots, another factor driving the need to build more parking.
2017 is a peak year for the plan with nearly $1 billion of work expected to be underway, including parking deck construction, five new gates on Concourse T, terminal modernization and preparations for a new 10-gate Concourse G.
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Hartsfield-Jackson handled a world record 101.5 million passengers in 2015, including those only making connections.
“At the pace at which passenger traffic is growing, at the pace at which the City of Atlanta is growing, we know that we need an additional five gates on Concourse T,” said Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Miguel Southwell during the airport’s industry day recently.
“We also know that we need an additional concourse, which we’re calling Concourse G.”
Forecasts show that a Concourse H also will be needed by 2029, but the airport may not have money for that expansion, Southwell said.
“The best airports in the world are the ones that are always thinking forward and advancing before a need suffocates them,” Leader said. “Atlanta has been really good… at staying ahead of demand.”
The billions to fund the expansion will come from the airport itself: a combination of airport funds, the $4.50 passenger facility charge travelers pay on top of air fares, airport bonds backed by revenue from airline leases and fees, commercial financing and federal grants.
The airport is self-supporting, run out of a stand-alone enterprise fund separate from the city of Atlanta budget. By law its revenues cannot be intermingled with general city funds, and it does not draw on city resources to fund expansion projects.
Another key part of paying for the expansion will be a 20-year lease with Delta. That deal, close to being finalized, in effect outlines funding from airlines for the airport’s capital improvement program.
One goal is to give the airport more personality.
The canopy and upgrades of the domestic terminal facade will create a “grander entrance to the airport,” said Tyler Isgett, pre-construction manager at New South Construction, which is on a team working on the project.
The terminal atrium is planned to be renovated with a “park-like” feel including walls with greenery. Isgett said the idea is to make the atrium “a more communal area that gets used more frequently… The point is to keep people here in the airport, spend money,” to generate more revenue.
The Terminal North check-in area will be renovated with a look and feel more like the international terminal, while gate areas on the concourses will be renovated with slanted ceilings and more windows to bring in more light.
“You judge a city by the experience, by the environment around you,” Leader said. “I think it will be timeless and will really anchor Atlanta in the memories of travelers.”