New terminal brings pleasures, perturbances

Credit: Jason Getz / AJC

Credit: Jason Getz / AJC

In the year since the Atlanta airport’s $1.4 billion international terminal opened, its spacious, airy feel and the elimination of the dreaded baggage recheck for Atlantans have received raves. But the quirks of the new facility still irk some travelers.

The terminal, which opened last May 16, marked an historic change for for Hartsfield-Jackson International by opening a second entrance for the airport off I-75 instead of I-85. It also added 12 more international gates on a new Concourse F.

The new enter-exit point can speed the time it takes international fliers to get in and out of the airport.

“The international terminal is a tremendous selling point for us,” said Mark Vaughan, chief sales officer for the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Certain frustrations stick in some Atlantans’ minds, however, including the more than half-mile walk from some arriving international flights on Concourse E to Customs and baggage claim in the new terminal. Another sore point is the lack of a MARTA stop at the new complex, which means travelers generally must take a shuttle bus to get to the transit station at the older main terminal.

There are no plans to eliminate those unpleasant facets of the new terminal, as they are consequences of the infrastructure of the airport.

“If you’re taking MARTA or getting a rental car, it can be pretty cumbersome,” said Charlie Olentine, executive vice president of the US Poultry and Egg Association, which organized a trade show in January that drew more than 25,000 people, including 5,400 international attendees.

But compared to the old baggage recheck process, “I think my international attendees were still pretty pleased with the new scenario.”

Before the new terminal opened, international fliers arriving at concourse E had to pick up their luggage and then, after clearing Customs, recheck it for the long ride to the main terminal, then pick it up again there.

Now those fliers can pick up their baggage in the new terminal and leave the airport.

Credit: Jason Getz / AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Jason Getz / AJC

One wrinkle in the new setup: Fliers arriving on concourse E now have to walk to the Customs area in the new terminal.

“It’s a long walk, especially if you’re schlepping all these purchases you’ve made out of the country down the walkway,” said Martha Gaughen, a travel agent and vice president of Brownell Travel. “You just have to prepare people.”

After complaints about the walk, as reported last year by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the airport began planning for an additional moving walkway on part of the path that doesn’t have one.

Gaughen said her agency gives detailed descriptions to clients on how to get to and through the international terminal.

“It was very confusing when it first opened up,” Gaughen said. “The inconveniences of the terminal are really more impactful for the people that live here… The people who don’t live here and are just connecting here don’t really have an issue.”

But, she said, “it’s a beautiful terminal … it is so easy to check in there.”

HNTB aviation architect Scott Hyde, who has worked on the airport’s planning team, said he thinks the airport has “done a good job of compromising where you have to compromise and providing a quality facility that’s something Atlanta should be very proud of.”

“There are a lot of important components that intertwine when you’re moving passengers — the people-mover, the baggage systems,” the separation of Customs-cleared passengers from those who have not yet been cleared, he said.

The terminal’s main area looks quite different from opening day, when it debuted with restaurants and concessions partially complete.

Contracting issues delayed the opening of those businesses, and none of the full-service restaurants were open. Jekyll Island Seafood Company, Lorena Garcia Tapas Bar and a permanent Starbucks location opened later, with the final restaurant, Ecco, unveiled in February.

Still to come: an upscale airline lounge, spa and sleep units. Those have been delayed by contracting issues.

Some of the earlier glitches of the international terminal reported by the AJC — including long lines for overcrowded shuttles — have since been alleviated, with more shuttles added.

When the terminal was planned years ago, the expectation was for significant growth in traffic. That was before the recession and Delta Air Lines’ international route cuts.

Airport general manager Louis Miller says the international terminal remains an important addition. The international Concourse F combined with the older international Concourse E combines to create a 40-gate international complex.

“You’re building for the future… I think we could easily see all 40 international gates being used almost simultaneously in the next 15 years or so,” Hyde said. “There’s going to be a need for more gates at some point.”

For now, the international terminal is often noticeably less busy than the domestic side, in part due to the way international flights are scheduled, with most European departures in the late afternoon.

“It’s not overcrowded. I feel more relaxed,” said Susan Fleming, of Augusta, who came to the terminal last week. “This setup is different and I like it.”