After $1.4 billion spent and more than a decade of work to build the Atlanta airport’s gleaming new international terminal, the thing that struck David Locker was the more than half-mile long hike he made after his flight from London.
“It’s an unconscionably long walk,” said Locker, of Buckhead, who has a bad knee and went to his doctor to have his knee drained after the experience. “I didn’t have any idea how long the walk was. That’s the problem.”
Officials at Hartsfield-Jackson International knew all along there would be some gripes about using the new terminal — the shuttle ride necessary to connect to MARTA or the train to the rental car center, for instance. Another that’s emerged is the amount of walking needed for Atlanta-bound passengers to get from some inbound planes to the Customs area in the new terminal.
The 1.2 million-square-foot terminal makes the world’s busiest airport even bigger, significantly streamlines the entry-exit process for international passengers and has won praise for jazzing up Hartsfield-Jackson’s image.
But as with any massive institutional facility made even more massive, some negative consequences arise as well. Airport officials say they have made operational and physical tweaks to mitigate them.
They have added larger shuttle vans and changed schedules to improve terminal-to-terminal service, for instance, after long lines and waits when the new terminal opened. They also plan to ask off-airport parking and hotel shuttle operators to serve both the new terminal and the main domestic terminal, rather than just the latter, so that fliers don’t have to take two shuttles to reach their car or hotel.
The long walk affects Atlanta-bound passengers on flights arriving at Concourse E, which is next door to the new terminal. Depending on the gate used, they face winding treks of anywhere from one-quarter to six-tenths of a mile to get to the Customs check in the new terminal. The new terminal has its own group of gates, Concourse F, that are much closer to Customs, but Concourse E still services some international flights.
About 1,500 of the 15,000 daily arriving international passengers use E gates and must make the walk, according to the airport.
Many arriving travelers welcome the lengthy stroll from E to the new terminal as a chance to stretch their legs after a long international flight, Hartsfield-Jackson deputy general manager Balram Bheodari said.
For others, such as people with disabilities or health problems, for the very old or very young, for parents lugging car seats and kiddie gear or people toting large carry-ons, it’s an unpleasant surprise.
And there is literally no end in sight. The path winds through long corridors with multiple turns.
“Every time you turned another corner, you thought you were there. Well, you weren’t,” said Clint Harkins, of Marietta, who made the walk after a flight from Amsterdam in July.
After getting complaints — including 29 in June, the first full month after the terminal opened — the airport, in cooperation with airlines, added wheelchairs, electric carts, seats and baggage carts along the way, customer service workers and signs showing distance remaining. Numerous readers also have complained to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“The challenge is we have to meet the expectation of those folks with physical limitations,” Bheodari said. “The airport pays very, very close attention to the feedback and we act on that feedback to reduce that inconvenience.”
Those who need assistance can request a wheelchair from their airline in advance or at the airport.
“We knew based on customer feedback that if they know it’s a 15-minute walk, it’s not an issue,” said Hartsfield-Jackson assistant general manager Jim Drinkard.
The airport is also considering other options, including eventually adding a moving walkway on part of the route that doesn’t offer any. On the longest route between E and Customs, moving walkways are available for about half the distance.
Ken Herndon of Sandy Springs thinks the problem lies in the way the new terminal was designed.
“It’s just confusing and very frustrating to have to walk a very long distance,” he said.
He said he doesn’t think the international terminal was worth the investment. “Eventually, it’s going to be a waste of money, because of that fact that something’s going to need to be redone.”
The walk isn’t an issue for outbound passengers who check in at the new terminal then go to an E gate; they can use the train, as can arriving passengers who need to connect to a domestic flight. But arriving international passengers who end trips in Atlanta have to be kept apart from other passengers before clearing Customs.
Customs also has a facility on E, but it is now used only for international passengers making connections in Atlanta. Passengers ending their travels in Atlanta go through Customs on Concourse F, then can leave directly.
How far is too far to walk is an issue designers of big public spaces all face. Ultimately, the answer depends on the person and circumstances — including how attractive the environment is, experts say. Art installations along the trek from E to the new terminal aim to make the trek less monotonous.
Atlanta’s is far from the longest walk in an airport. According to John Fruin, a retired engineer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, passengers transferring between airlines at some large airports walk distances greater than a mile. A 1989 Transportation Research Board paper noted then that airport walking distances of 4,000 feet and more were “becoming more frequent.”
Chicago O’Hare, for example, has a walk of up to nearly 1 mile for passengers connecting between Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 who don’t want to leave the secure area to take the airport train.
And long walks aren’t limited to airports. Seeing the entire collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art requires a 3-mile walk, said Fruin, who added: “Forget about the Smithsonan.”
In Atlanta, Bheodari said passengers can still exit the airport quicker through the new terminal than they could before, even with the walk from E to Customs. Before it opened, they had to go to the main terminal at the far end of the airport from international gates. Fliers with checked baggage had to re-check it after clearing Customs so it could be sent to the main terminal while they rode the train. They then had to claim it a second time. The airport says the new terminal saves about 45 minutes for most arriving international passengers and up to 30 minutes for most of those departing.
Drinkard said the airport’s configuration prevented any basic design changes that could have significantly cut the distance from some E gates to the Customs area in the new terminal.
“Any of the schemes we looked at was going to have a walking distance that is not optimal,” he said.
In addition, he said, “We don’t have, nor could we afford a separate train” for passengers on their way to Customs. Such a train would have cost nearly $150 million, the airport estimates.
When Locker took the long walk a couple of weeks after the terminal opened, the airport was fixing glitches in the new moving walkways, adding to the distance he had to walk.
“I’ll never put myself in the position to have that long walk again,” Locker said.
LONG AND WINDING WALKS
The length passengers must walk to get to Customs from their gate after arriving at Atlanta’s new international terminal.
The length passengers must walk to get from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3 at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
The distance visitors must walk to see the entire collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.