Super Bowl crowds filled the world’s busiest airport Friday as Hartsfield-Jackson International officials ramped up operations for even heavier traffic to come.
Friday was the busiest day for fan arrivals, “but they’ve been coming all week,” said Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden.
The biggest test will come when Super Bowl fans leave en masse on Monday and a record number of travelers pass through airport security checkpoints.
Thousands are expected to head to the airport immediately after the game and spend the night in the terminal — a move airport officials are encouraging to reduce the surge of travelers expected Monday morning.
If enough people heed the call, it could make a huge difference, according to Kofi Smith, CEO of the Atlanta Airlines Terminal Corp.
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Friday traffic at the airport gave a hint of the what’s to come, with throngs of travelers on concourses and dozens greeting those arriving in the terminal.
Some passengers getting off Delta Air Lines flights from Boston and Los Angeles were surprised with gate celebrations that included a drum line, former Falcons player Roddy White and mascots for the Falcons, Braves and Hawks.
But Monday is the day airport officials have been getting ready for since 2017. It will combine a traditionally busy time for business travel with the huge surge of fans.
In preparation, airport officials planned for as many as 110,000 departing passengers on what’s been dubbed Mass Exodus Monday.
Based on current airport bookings, it may not quite reach that level, but there are still expectations for record passenger counts with nearly 100,000 passengers forecast, Selden said.
“I expect the terminal to be very busy,” Selden said. Airport and airline officials are bracing for long lines and wait times.
Hartsfield-Jackson has activated its Emergency Operations Center, staffed with airport officials, the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, FBI, Atlanta Fire & Rescue and other officials to tackle crowd management and emergencies as they arise.
“We find we can manage events more effectively having everybody in one place,” said Gus Hudson, director of emergency management and communications for the airport. Among the staff, one person is assigned to monitor the more than 2,400 closed-circuit TV cameras throughout the airport.
Delta has set up its own war room to make quick decisions on how to handle any flight disruptions.
Smith said he is adding maintenance staff to quickly respond if any elevators, escalators or moving walkways go down.
“The big thing for me is just keeping people moving,” he said. Extra custodial staff will be on hand to service restrooms 24 hours a day.
TSA is bringing in additional officers, trainees from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco and K-9 units from other cities to screen passengers.
“You’ll see heavy volumes throughout the day,” said TSA spokesman Mark Howell. He warned that business travelers should treat it like a busy holiday period.
“You just have to build in that additional time,” he said. And “keep in mind traffic.”
TSA is preparing to have security lanes open 24 hours Sunday night into Monday. Delta passengers also will be able to go through security at the international terminal Monday.
Delta plans to hand out amenity kits and blankets to passengers spending Sunday night on the concourses. The airport plans to keep some eateries and newsstands open 24 hours on every concourse overnight Sunday.
When passengers are stranded by mass flight cancellations during storms, some sleep in the underground Plane Train tunnel alongside the moving walkways. But Sunday night will be different in that passengers will be streaming into the concourses throughout the night. Airport officials want to keep the walkways in the tunnel clear, and passengers will likely sleep in gate areas.
“No one should be naive in thinking it’s not going to be challenging trying to push through 110,000 people through the checkpoints,” Smith said. “But we’ve put in all the planning.”