12/03/2018 — Atlanta, Georgia — Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden stands for a photo at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, Tuesday, December 4, 2018. Selden is a former Navy pilot who served at the Pentagon and in Puerto Rico, and was a commercial pilot. He started out his career in airport management at New York’s Republic Airport, and joined JFK in 2008, being named deputy general manager in 2014. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Hartsfield-Jackson manager aims to fix curb congestion, parking lines

John Selden has been running the world’s busiest airport for only about two months and says the operation “has always been incredibly efficient.” Even so, he’s already spotted a number of areas for improvement. 

Thanks to his background in operations, he’s also managed to devise possible fixes.

One of his priorities will be alleviating the bottlenecks in traffic at the curbside at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and in the wait to exit parking decks. While no airport manager can control highway traffic or MARTA delays, he said, “I can do things when you get on the property.”

“I look at the operation from the time you leave your house,” said Selden, a former deputy manager at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The hiring of Selden — a retired Navy commander, former airline pilot and longtime airport manager — marks a shift in focus at the top of the Atlanta airport.

In the wake of the massive power outage a year ago that resulted in a breakdown of operations with thousands of passengers stranded in the terminal, some noted that a finance manager was at the helm of the airport, rather than an operational guru.

Roosevelt Council, who led Hartsfield-Jackson at the time, has since moved into the role of chief financial officer for the city.

When looking for a new airport manager, “I know the mayor wanted an operations person,” Selden said. Such expertise is key for managing not just major incidents, but also everyday challenges at a busy, complex airport. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms named Selden to the position of general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson after a months-long search. He stepped into the role in October.

Departures and Arrivals

Over the past two months, Selden has noted an unusual characteristic of the Atlanta airport: Unlike many other major airports, arrivals and departures are handled on the same level at the domestic terminal.

That’s because the airline check-in counters are a short walk away from the baggage claim carousels, all on the main level of the terminal.

But it also means congestion of departing and arriving traffic at the curbside is mostly concentrated on a single level, on either side of the domestic terminal.

“It can get real hectic,” said Clisaundra Jones, who lives in Rex and works at the airport.

But, with more travelers checking in online and avoiding checked baggage fees, a smaller share of people need to use the the check-in lobby than in the past.

Selden is now asking: “Is it possible to check in downstairs, from the [lesser-used] lower level?” While baggage carousels are often on a lower level at other airports, they are on the upper level at Hartsfield-Jackson. That infrastructure would be pricey to relocate.

He also said he wants to look into a long-standing complaint of international travelers in Atlanta — that once they leave secured areas, they need to take shuttle buses to go between the international terminal and the domestic terminal.

“We need to see if we can maybe get more connectivity,” Selden said, adding that he wants to explore changes to procedures to reduce the hassle.

Parking frustrations

Another major chokepoint outside the terminal is the wait to exit parking lots and decks, where long lines can cause delays.

“You’ve been on your flight, everything’s on time. You want to pay, but there’s a line,” Selden said.

He wants to consider a system for automatic payment of parking fees via license plate readers and a system you could use with your Peach Pass, or via mobile payment.

“We really need to fix that customer experience,” Selden said. “I truly believe you should be able to drive out and pay with your phone.”

It’s a system already in use at a number of other airports around the country, including in Florida where airports in Miami, Orlando and other cities allow payment by SunPass.

Elsewhere, New York airports allows payment by E-ZPass; Dallas/Fort Worth International allows payment with a TollTag; San Francisco International via FasTrak; and Pittsburgh International via Go Fast Pass.

“Other airports, even smaller airports, already have that,” said traveler Jessica Eves, who noted that you can use a SunPass at her home airport in Palm Beach, Fla.

In Atlanta, that technology might not become reality for years.

Lanes for automatic payment could affect the design of the new parking decks, reducing the number of toll booths needed. Selden said he also wants to consider dynamic pricing, to charge less for parking during less-busy times and more during congested periods.

Airport contracting

A more pressing matter is the lingering issue of concessions contract delays. Concessions contracts for new shops throughout the airport and new restaurants on Concourse E have been on hold since 2017, amid a federal probe into Atlanta City Hall. Some candidates for mayor had also called for a moratorium on new contracts that would have started this year.

Following more than a year of delays, the current concessions contracts are now past their original expiration dates.

There has not yet been a decision on whether to rebid the contracts, given the federal bribery probe and accusations of contract steering by former airport manager Miguel Southwell.

The delays have slowed the update of concessions that could modernize the airport, which “possibly could bring additional profits,” Selden said.

“But my priority is to do this right,” he said. “I have a belief that the procurement process cannot be interfered with.”

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