Hartsfield-Jackson tops 100 million mark

Passenger Larry Kendrick arrives with full media attention from Gulfport, Mississippi. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport awarded its 100 millionth passenger for 2015 with prizes including a new car, two free airline tickets and a small crowd of officials and television cameras early Sunday December 27, 2015.

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON/ kdjohnson@ajc.com

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON/ kdjohnson@ajc.com

Passenger Larry Kendrick arrives with full media attention from Gulfport, Mississippi. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport awarded its 100 millionth passenger for 2015 with prizes including a new car, two free airline tickets and a small crowd of officials and television cameras early Sunday December 27, 2015.

Hartsfield-Jackson facts

— Hartsfield-Jackson has been the world’s busiest by passenger counts since 1998.

— It was also the busiest for aircraft operations from 2005 to 2013.

— At 398 feet, Hartsfield-Jackson’s air traffic control tower is the tallest in North America and is 4th-tallest in the world.

— Hartsfield-Jackson averages more than 250,000 passengers a day.

— There are nearly 2,500 arrivals and departures daily, with a takeoff about every 45 seconds.

— More than 63,000 airline, ground transportation, concessionaire, security, federal government, city of Atlanta and airport tenant employees work at the airport.

— There are more than 30,000 public parking spaces at Hartsfield-Jackson

— The terminal complex covers 130 acres, or 6.8 million square feet. It has 207 aircraft gates, 167 of them domestic and 40 for international flights.

Source: Hartsfield-Jackson

Atlanta’s airport through the years: Candler Field to Hartsfield-Jackson

1925 Atlanta Mayor Walter Sims decides to develop an auto racetrack into an airfield, with part of it renamed Candler Field after Coca-Cola magnate Asa Candler.

1941 Delta moves its headquarters from Monroe, La., to Atlanta.

1971 The Atlanta airport is renamed the William B. Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, after the long-serving Atlanta mayor and aviation advocate, and introduces its first international flight.

1980 The current main terminal opens. At 2.5 million square feet, it was the world’s largest air passenger terminal, designed for up to 55 million passengers a year.

1984 Fourth runway opens.

1991 Eastern Airlines shuts down, leaving Concourse C empty.

1993 ValuJet, predecessor to AirTran Airways, launches as a discount carrier.

1994 Concourse E, which includes the current international gates, opens.

1996 The main terminal atrium opens in time for Atlanta to refresh the airport’s look as the city hosts the Summer Olympics.

1997 ValuJet changes its name to AirTran Airways, following a deadly 1996 ValuJet crash in Florida.

2003 The airport is renamed Hartsfield-Jackson to include the name of the city’s first black mayor, Maynard H. Jackson. Plans are laid to also put his name on the international terminal.

Mid-2000s The airport executes a massive project to move baggage screening underground to modernize for post-9/11 security.

2006 The fifth runway opens.

2008 Delta acquires Northwest Airlines, becoming for a couple of years the world’s largest airline.

2009 Opening of the rental car center and SkyTrain people-mover to the Georgia International Convention Center and the rental car center.

2011 Southwest acquires AirTran Airways.

2012 Hartsfield-Jackson opens its new international terminal and Concourse F, introducing a second, eastside entrance to the airport off I-75.

2014 AirTran lands its final flight, as its operations are folded into Southwest.

Chicago O’Hare steals away from Atlanta the title for the most flights in the world for 2014, though Hartsfield-Jackson retains the title for the most passengers.

2015 Hartsfield-Jackson launches a campaign to emphasize that people should use the airport’s full name, instead of shortening it to “Hartsfield.”

Dec. 27, 2015 Hartsfield-Jackson hits a record 100 million passengers handled in a single year.

Sources: Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, research

Kelly Yamanouchi

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which started as a humble airfield on an abandoned racetrack, set a world record Sunday by handling 100 million passengers in a single year.

The milestone capped a surprising 5 percent increase in passenger traffic this year.

"It's our commitment that we maintain our position as the world's most traveled airport," Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said in a ceremony before the flight arrived Sunday morning.

The official 100 millionth passenger: Larry Kendrick, of Biloxi, Miss. He stepped off his flight wearing blue jeans, an orange t-shirt, a ball cap and a bemused expression as he was greeted by dark-suited dignitaries, airport and airline workers and even the drumline from Tri-Cities High School.

Kendrick was selected based on accountants’ estimates of when the record-setting passenger would arrive.

“That’s a very big surprise,” said Kendrick, who got prizes including a new car and two Delta round-trip tickets.

“I have no clue where I’m going to go. Probably to Disneyland,” he said.

As commonplace as eye-popping numbers at Hartsfield-Jackson seem today, Sunday’s milestone remains a remarkable feat for an airport in a city many times smaller than others around the globe like New York, Mexico City and Tokyo.

One factor was the foresight of city officials in establishing and marketing Atlanta as an air hub. Another was the rise of the hub-and-spoke system that funnels passengers in and out of Hartsfield-Jackson.

About two-thirds of passengers in Atlanta are connecting, most of them on Delta Air Lines, which made Atlanta its home base in the 1940s and has since grown into a global power. It has a gigantic hub operation at Hartsfield-Jackson, which is owned by the city of Atlanta.

“It’s not because Atlanta has wonderful concessions or a brand new terminal,” Colorado-based airline consultant Mike Boyd said of Hartsfield-Jackson’s statistical prowess. “It’s decisions made by Delta Air Lines, period. That’s what’s done it.”

Delta is by far Hartsfield-Jackson’s biggest tenant, though a string of other carriers have had large operations contributing to its rise. They range from Eastern Airlines and Southern Airways to ValuJet, AirTran Airways and now Southwest Airlines.

Another factor that boosts traffic at Hartsfield-Jackson is the fact it’s the only commercial airport in the region. Bigger cities like Chicago and New York have second hub airports.

Various efforts over the years to create a “second airport” here have gone nowhere so far, though Paulding County’s small airport is currently trying to gain commercial certification and attract limited service. Both Delta and the city of Atlanta now oppose the idea, saying it would divert resources from improvements to Hartsfield-Jackson.

The airport has a $6 billion master plan to renovate the domestic terminal and concourses, demolish and rebuild the parking garages and eventually expand with more concourses and a sixth runway.

At one time passenger projections showed Hartsfield-Jackson with more than 120 million annual passengers by now. Various factors including the Great Recession slowed the growth rate, but it has picked up again and the 100 million milestone came faster than expected, airport officials said.

The title of world’s busiest could be at risk in coming years, however. Chicago O’Hare already regained the title for the most takeoffs and landings for 2014, though Atlanta still has the most passengers.

Many expect China’s Beijing International to soon surpass Atlanta as the world’s busiest airport, and Dubai’s airport is expanding to be able to accommodate as many as 240 million passengers a year.

Boyd said Atlanta — whose status as a Southeast economic superpower is largely credited to the airport — could even face increased rivalry from Charlotte, where American Airlines plans to grow its hub in the wake of a merger with US Airways.

“There’s going to be a lot more competition,” Boyd said.