It’s time for the holiday rush at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which handled a record 101.5 million passengers last year. There are a lot of changes happening at the world’s busiest airport and knowing what to expect can help to lessen the stress of traveling and reduce the chance of mishaps. Here are the latest developments for travelers at the Atlanta airport, so you can navigate the airport like a pro.
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WHAT'S NEW THIS YEAR
The airport has launched a $6 billion plan to modernize the terminal and expand the airport. Work has already begun in parts of the terminal and outside on the roads, making a few areas of the airport construction zones and requiring detours for cars and people navigating around the airport. The work on the “ATLNext” master plan projects began this year and will continue for years to come.
Watch out for road closures outside the domestic terminal. The airport this fall started doing construction work to prepare for the installation of giant canopies over the terminal curbside areas, closing lanes on the outer roadway and lower level. Allow extra time to allow for any congestion, slow down on your approach to the terminal and watch for lane closures.
TSA smart lanes
The Transportation Security Administration this year has installed new automated “smart lanes” at the South security checkpoint. In early December, it will start construction of more smart lanes at the North security checkpoint.
The new smart lanes are aimed at speeding the process of security screening, but they can take some getting used to. If you find yourself at an automated smart lane with larger bins and metal conveyors, here’s what you need to know:
1) If you’re next in line and any of the five bin-loading stations opens up, proceed to it.
2) Everything goes in one bin, including a roll-aboard suitcase for example. The bins are 25 percent larger, but be aware that oversized carry-on luggage won’t fit in the bin.
3) Push the bin onto the conveyor belt, which will automatically move it into the X-ray machine. Then walk through the checkpoint — you don’t have to wait for the person in front of you to finish.
4) Bin retrieval:
A: If a bin’s contents need to be manually screened, it is automatically bumped over to an alternate conveyor belt for an officer’s inspection.
B: If your bin clears the X-ray machine, retrieve your belongings on the other side as usual. When you put your bin on the stack at the end of the lane, it will be automatically returned to the front of the line via a lower-level conveyor belt.
Since Georgia passed its new gun law last year, the Atlanta airport has seen a big increase in the number of guns brought to security checkpoints. Guns are still prohibited past security. Hartsfield-Jackson passed its 2015 record for the number of guns caught at security checkpoints by October of this year, with 155 guns caught at the checkpoint by then.
People caught with a firearm at the security checkpoint will be taken to the Atlanta Police Department precinct, and could be arrested. The FBI in June 2016 launched a new approach meaning that anyone who forgets they have a gun in their carry-on luggage and is caught at the security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson could face up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. They could also be subject to a TSA civil penalty and could miss their flight.
- Customs has installed Border Xpress passport kiosks open to all travelers to speed processing
- Customs launched a mobile passport control app to submit your passport info and customs declaration form via your phone before you get to the lineup.
- Be aware that Delta has been selling “basic economy” fares, which offer less flexibility than regular economy “main cabin” fares. If you bought a basic economy fare, there are no advance seat assignments, no ability to pay to upgrade and no ticket changes allowed.
- Starbucks. The Starbucks and other shops next to the Main checkpoint in the domestic terminal and along the walkways in that part of the terminal have closed, as the airport works on an expansion of the queuing area for security at the main checkpoint. Look for a new temporary Starbucks in the terminal atrium next to La Madeleine.
- Luda's Chicken+Beer. Atlanta rapper Ludacris recently opened his long-awaited Chicken+Beer restaurant on Concourse D, serving "Southern-style comfort food" and local beers.
- Pre-order airport food. At a number of airport restaurants, you can now pre-order food via an app called Grab. The options include Fly Burger, Paschal’s, Fresh to Order, Grindhouse Killer Burgers and 40/40 Club.
- Hookahs. Hartsfield-Jackson opened its first hookah bar earlier this year. The Terrapin Tap House and Smoke Lounge on Concourse D sells craft beer, sandwiches, brats, salads, and more than a dozen brands of cigars and “a vast selection of shisha hookah tobacco flavors.”
- Zika. If you’re heading to a Zika-affected area, you can buy Environmental Protection Agency-approved insect repellent at certain concessionaires at the Atlanta airport. Check signs at the airport.
- Track bags. Delta now allows you to track your checked bag on a map via its app. The airline uses RFID-equipped bag tags and can show you on the Fly Delta app where your bag was last scanned in its system.
- Free in-flight entertainment. You can watch all in-flight entertainment on Delta for free. Delta in July removed all fees for its in-flight entertainment seat-back screens or streaming on laptops, smartphones and tablets — including movies, TV shows, music and live satellite TV. The airline previously charged for some of the entertainment including new release movies and HBO shows.
- Self bag-tagging. Southwest now has self bag-tagging. At the kiosks, you can print out your own bag tags, attach them to your luggage and then take the luggage to an agent behind the counter. Instructions are given on the kiosk and on the tag.
- Walk through a forest. If you walk in the underground transportation mall instead of taking the people-mover train between Concourses A and B, you’ll see the airport’s $4.1 million art installation called “Flight Paths” by artist Steve Waldeck. The airport’s most expensive piece of art spans 450 feet and aims to simulate a walk through a forest, with leaves overhead and forest sounds of birds chirping and a rain shower.
- Ants. Meanwhile, the artwork entitled “Brute Neighbors” featuring ants on the wall and ceiling at the Terminal North baggage claim have been taken down as the airport prepares for modernization construction work over the next five to eight years.
- Olympic mural. The longstanding mural of kids at Centennial Olympic Park, which greeted passengers coming up the escalator from the train into the domestic terminal, has been taken down. It was removed to make way for a giant digital screen to display airport information and promotional material. The construction for the new screen has taken longer than expected due to infrastructure issues and scaffolding requirements.
New airport amenities
- Visitors center. A visitors center opened in early 2016 at the meet-and-greet area for arriving passengers in the domestic terminal. It has giant HD video walls showing images and videos of metro Atlanta and Georgia, and can help tourists plan trips, get travel guides and learn about attractions, restaurants, music venues and music landmarks. It replaces the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau kiosk.
- Animal relief areas. Hartsfield-Jackson has opened new animal relief areas for pets and service animals on Concourses B and C. There are more animal relief areas planned for the rest of the concourses, to be completed by February 2017.
- Lactation pods. The world’s busiest airport now has lactation pods for nursing mothers. It opened Mamava lactation pods on Concourses T, B, D and F. Each lactation unit is free to use, and has a locked door, bench, changing table and electrical outlet for pumps.
- Multi-sensory room for children with autism. The Atlanta airport now has a multi-sensory room on Concourse F for children on the autism spectrum to prepare for a flight. The room offers a “soothing supportive environment” with a tactile activity panel, mini crash pit and other features.
- On Delta’s domestic flights, the first checked bag is $25, and the second is $35. Southwest Airlines does not charge fees for the first two checked bags. See airlines’ websites for more information.
NAVIGATING THE AIRPORT
- Record crowds have led to some long waits this year at TSA checkpoints, and TSA, airline and the airport have added staff and made changes in an effort to shorten lines. Still, wait times can exceed 30 minutes during peak periods. Plan accordingly and arrive at the airport earlier than usual to get to your gate on time. It’s a good idea to get to the airport at least two hours before your flight departs.
- The most dependable way to get expedited screening is to apply for PreCheck — which gives you the chance to keep your shoes, belts and jackets on and leave liquids in your suitcase. It costs $85 for five years. You can sign up online and schedule an appointment at a PreCheck registration center. There is a registration center in Hartsfield-Jackson’s domestic terminal and one on Concourse A.
- There are three checkpoints in the domestic terminal — Main, South and North. The international terminal has its own security checkpoint.
- TSA has reduced expedited screening for travelers who have not been vetted through its PreCheck program.
- There’s now a PreCheck line at the international terminal, in addition to lines at the main checkpoint and north checkpoint at the domestic terminal.
Directions from Downtown Atlanta
To the domestic terminal: Take I-75/85 connector south to I-85, follow signs to [airport symbol] Domestic.
On MARTA: Take the Red or Gold line to and from the terminal. Trips are $2.50 each way. Trains operate either every 15 minutes or every 20 minutes, depending on the day, time and route.
To the international terminal: Take I-75/85 connector south and continue on I-75. Take Exit 239. Turn right onto C.W. Grant Parkway. Continue straight and follow signs to“Departures,” “Arrivals”or “Parking.”
TIME TO KILL?
- The cellphone lot is a great place for “meeter-greeters” to wait for their friends or family who haven’t yet arrived at the curbside. It’s free to wait there in your car, and the entrance is on the right side of the road leading to Terminal South.
- If you’re in the domestic terminal and need to charge your phone, you can grab a bite or a drink at the bar at the Atlanta Chop House and use the outlets running underneath the bar.
- If you’re past security and you need a private place to sleep or work, you can pay for a “sleep unit” at Minute Suites on Concourse B. Each of the five units has a daybed, pillows, blankets, a TV, desk and chair.
- If you’re on Concourse A, there’s now a kiosk between Gates A11 and A15 that offers a two-minute training on hands-only CPR.
- Concourses A and C have XpresSpa locations where you can get a massage, manicure or pedicure.
- Wi-Fi is free at Hartsfield-Jackson.
- If you carry a reusable water bottle, the airport has water bottle refilling stations.
- Hartsfield-Jackson has more than 30,000 public parking spaces, including domestic terminal park-ride spaces for $9 per day.
- If you park at the park-ride reserve lot or at the international terminal hourly parking deck, you can reserve a spot by making an online parking reservation, for a $5 booking fee.
- A variety of private lots also offer spaces with prices ranging from roughly $7 to $15, not including valet or other services.
- Private parking rates are subject to change and are subject to applicable taxes and fees. Some facilities offer discounts for online reservations, seniors and AAA club members.
- Not all private park-ride lots serve the international terminal. The airport’s international terminal has its own park-ride garage charging $12 per day.
- Thinking of bringing something for the holiday meal? Prohibited liquids or gels in carry-on bags include cranberry sauce, creamy dips/spreads, gravy, jams and jellies, maple syrup and sauces.
- Some sharp objects such as small scissors, tweezers, nail clippers and small tools may be carried on board. Put film in your carry-on, as bomb-screening machines can ruin film.
- Airport lounge: A VIP lounge in the international terminal is open to passengers of any airline for $40 a day. The Club at ATL offers cushy seats and complimentary snacks and beverages, among other amenities.
- Sky Deck: The Delta Sky Club at Hartsfield-Jackson’s international terminal has an outdoor deck where you can watch planes coming and going. A one-day Sky Club pass costs $59.
INTERNATIONAL TERMINAL FAQ
Q: Where can international travelers park at the international terminal?
A: The international terminal has a short-term hourly parking garage, as well as a long-term park-ride garage with a 3-minute shuttle bus ride to the terminal, and a Gold Reserve parking lot that requires registration. There are no daily parking or walkable economy parking lots like at the domestic terminal.
Q: Where do international travelers claim their checked bags when arriving in Atlanta?
A: At the international terminal baggage claim area.
Q: What if I go to the wrong terminal?
A: You may still be able to check in for your flight, depending on the airline. But if you can’t check in for your flight or check your bag, don’t worry — you can take a shuttle bus to get to the correct terminal. At the main terminal, the shuttle will be at the ground transportation center on the west end of the terminal. The shuttle ride from one terminal to the other will take 12 minutes. International travelers may want to allow some extra time the first time they use the terminal, in case of any wait or confusion.
Q: How can I get from the airport MARTA station to the international terminal?
A: A free shuttle bus runs between the airport MARTA station and the international terminal 24 hours a day, available to passengers only.
Q: How can visitors to Atlanta get to the rental car center?
A: A separate free shuttle bus will take travelers from the international terminal to the rental car center.
Q: Where do I pick up arriving international passengers?
A: Take I-75, exit 239 to the international terminal, where signs will point you toward the lower-level roadway for arriving passengers.
Q: Does the people-mover train go to Concourse F?
A: Yes, the train and the pedestrian walkway connect Concourse F with all other concourses. If you’re an Atlanta-bound international passenger going through Customs, you’ll exit into the international terminal arrivals area. You won’t be able to get through security to access the people-mover train to the main terminal, but you can take a shuttle to the main terminal. Also, Atlanta-bound passengers who arrive on Concourse E must walk to the international terminal to collect their baggage and exit. The walk varies from about a quarter mile to six-tenths of a mile long, though there are some moving walkways.
Q: Did the international terminal replace international Concourse E?
A: No, the international terminal and 12-gate Concourse F are in addition to the 28-gate Concourse E. They form what the airport calls a“40-gate international air travel complex.”
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