While Hartsfield-Jackson International winds down, the airport never sleeps.
Millions of travelers will flood Atlanta’s gateway to the world this holiday season, but they won’t see what an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter saw during a series of middle-of-the-night visits.
Namely, the theater that unfolds after dark.
Hartsfield-Jackson jumps and hums like a mini metropolis during the light of day. That’s when most of the 58,000 people who work there do their thing, supporting some 2,500 flights and 250,000 passengers daily.
The airport’s night owls don’t swoop in till near midnight. But while they’re a small part of the whole, they’re no less crucial.
They stream onto runways, and into terminals, concourses, garages and hangars.
They fix aircraft, load cargo, build eateries, snatch debris, lay tile, paint tarmac — and scan for essentials in need of replacement or repair.
Nearby at Delta Air Lines’ sprawling headquarters, operations center dispatchers monitor flights in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Latin America and the Middle East.
The night lays the groundwork for another day at the world’s busiest airport.
And the clock is ticking.
Amid a sea of steel and chrome in an airport parking lot, Jimmy Davidson peers at a handheld device while walking behind a truck being driven slowly and methodically down each aisle.
Davidson, an eight-year veteran of airport contractor Standard Parking, is a license plate inventory clerk.
He painstakingly records tag numbers with the device in his hand. And co-workers clad in fluorescent-striped shirts carry out the same task in other airport-run lots and garages, covering more than 30,000 parking spaces.
“Every night, every lot,” says Cheryl Dukes, manager of the Standard Parking license plate inventory team.
The truck, equipped with special cameras and LED lights on each side, crawls through the aisles at 5 miles per hour, capturing license plates.
All of which means that if you forgot where you parked your car, a call to customer service will lead you to it. And if you lost your lot ticket after a lengthy trip, Dukes’ team knows exactly how long your car has been there.
The inventory also tracks parking trends, prevents parking fraud, and detects abandoned vehicles, which can be towed after 30 days.
Davidson walks behind a truck driven by Wallace James, recording tag numbers that the truck’s cameras can’t catch. For instance, license plates on cars that have been backed into spaces.
They inventory some 1,700 cars per hour, clearing out before the first bleary-eyed traveler drives in to catch a pre-dawn flight.
It’s the middle of the night, but it’s bright as day on the concourses at Hartsfield-Jackson.
A construction crew is putting up drywall for a new restaurant, one of more than 100 concessions being built over the course of more than a year in the airport’s massive makeover.
Eight workers rush to finish the job before the night is over so they can transform the area from construction zone back to concourse before passengers start arriving.
They “have this stuff down to a science,” says senior project manager John Kitchin of New South Construction. “These guys will get this whole thing built tonight.”
It starts around 9 p.m., when dozens of construction trucks line up at Gate 59 by the airport cargo area, waiting as long as half an hour to get through the queue. Once on the concourse, they rope off an area and get down to business.
“Generally speaking, we consider the work hours out here to be 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.,” says Kitchin. “Realistically, it’s more like 11 to 4” after factoring in the time it takes to set up and clean up a construction site.
“We can come in at 11 p.m. … and be gone at 5 a.m., and it never looks like we were here,” says New South’s Steve Rosser.
The drills whine and the hammers bang. But what’s that other sound?
It’s the whirring of floor cleaners and vacuums. The airport is too jammed with travelers to get such work done during the day.
Sagress Sothsavanh, a traveler from Los Angeles bedding down in the atrium hours before a 5:45 a.m. flight because “it wasn’t worth it to get a hotel,” gets clobbered by the cacophony. “I don’t know how other people are sleeping,” she says.
Few travelers are aware of the after-dark airport activity, which is intentional.
“We’re like the tooth fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa Claus all wrapped up into one,” says Kitchin, who keeps a cot in his office to catch some shut-eye between nighttime projects and daytime meetings.
The behind-the-scenes planning is meticulous.
“How much tile can you do in one night? That was a subject of tremendous debate and discussion,” Kitchin says.
ON THE AIRFIELD
It’s a cool, clear night, and Jarin Horton is scanning the dark expanse of tarmac, dotted with tiny blue and white runway and taxiway lights.
There are more than 16,000 lights on the airfield. And Horton, as a graveyard-shift airport operations employee, is looking for any that are burnt out.
He also grabs garbage to be tossed into a bucket marked FOD, foreign object debris. It’s the bane of airline operations because of the risk of it being sucked into jet engines.
“You’re always looking for FOD — always,” Horton says.
On the darkened airfield with the “Fly Delta Jets” sign glowing in the distance, Horton recalls a memorable moment: Discovering the remains of a coyote struck by a plane. Coyotes are not an uncommon sight at the airport. But this poor, dead critter’s blood, fur and entrails were smeared over 100 yards.
“Nobody likes to pick it up, but we’ve got to get out there quickly so the aircraft can land,” Horton says.
The airfield’s relative quiet is sometimes punctuated by the boom of a cannon intended to scare off birds, which can cause engine damage if they have a run-in with a plane.
But most of the time, it’s peaceful after the daily flight schedule dies down.
“Getting out on the airfield is fun,” says Horton, noting that night workers “do form a bond.”
“We all struggle to sleep during the day.”
Horton hops into his airport SUV and pulls up to a cluster of workers illuminated by glaring spotlights in the middle of the fifth runway, on the portion that spans I-285. In fluorescent green vests against the black sky, the crew runs water-blasters to ready the runway for repainting.
They are limited by the night’s tight boundaries, a narrow window between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. They must scatter before takeoffs and landings begin all over again.
One area remains quiet, no matter when.
Nestled between the runways and taxiways are Flat Rock Cemetery and Hart Cemetery, remnants of the community that existed there before Hartsfield-Jackson expanded.
It may be the darkest and stillest part of the world’s busiest airport.
On a bitterly cold night nearly two years ago, dozens of Atlanta’s homeless were sprawled across the terminal atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson.
They’d streamed in on the last MARTA train, set up for the night, then cleared out in the morning before flights resumed.
That type of scene is far less common now.
About a year and a half ago, Atlanta airport police boosted enforcement of a 1996 loitering ordinance that dictates it’s “unlawful for any person to use or remain in the airport for the purpose of lodging,” except in the case of severe weather, flight delays or other disruption to airport activity.
Airport police officers patrol through the night, offering shuttle rides to persons who don’t have “legitimate reasons” to be on airport property. They’re taken to shelters, MARTA stations, or the residences of family or friends.
“We try to find them placement. … A safe place of their choosing,” says Atlanta airport police Lt. Timothy Algeo. Those who return are issued warnings, and multiple infractions can lead to arrest on criminal trespassing charges.
But enforcement at Hartsfield-Jackson ebbs and flows as Atlanta continues to wrestle with the complex issue of homelessness.
The airport may seem like an attractive refuge for some of the area’s 2,000 homeless — especially during the cold winter months, says Protip Biswas, vice president of United Way Greater Atlanta’s Regional Commission on Homelessness.
It’s “a place with light and warmth” that’s easily accessible by MARTA, says Biswas, who has worked with airport police to direct the homeless to services and shelters.
But as the ranks of the homeless increased at Hartsfield-Jackson, it became “a hazard to the paying customers,” says Algeo. The issue “really came to a head” about a year and a half ago.
It was “overwhelming,” says the police lieutenant. “We tried to find a humanitarian solution.”
At the perimeter of the airfield late in the evening, a 177-foot-long Airbus A300 cargo plane waits to be loaded amid a frenzy of activity.
It’s “go” time at the UPS Atlanta Gateway package operation, and in the warehouse and on the tarmac, workers dash.
Every night, four huge aircraft must be loaded to take off between 9 p.m. and 11:15 p.m.
The schedule is what enables customers to have a package picked up as late as 9 p.m. for delivery at 8:30 a.m. the next morning. But the planes must get to cargo hubs in Louisville, Ky., and Philadelphia for the overnight sorting of packages that routes them to their destination.
Brandon Yancey stands and watches on the tarmac. He was once stunned at what gets accomplished each night.
“When I was new, I was like, ‘Gosh, how does all of that get done in such a small window?’” says the member of the team that handles up to 10,000 UPS Next Day Air packages and items in the space of five hours.
Yancey oversees the 7-to-midnight “twilight shift” that handles departures. Like the “sunrise shift,” which starts at 3:30 a.m. and handles arrivals, it employs part-timers.
Not all of the 80 overnight workers are loaders. Russ Bramlett, an aircraft maintenance supervisor, makes sure the planes are in the best condition to fly. A delayed departure could mean thousands of packages miss the UPS Next Day Air promise.
“We’re kind of like firemen,” Bramlett says.
Training and compliance supervisor Joanna Rogers agrees.
“It’s always amazing.”
The last Atlanta passenger flights for the night have taken off, but there are still nearly 100 employees stationed at Delta Air Lines’ Operations/Customer Center deep within its headquarters near Hartsfield-Jackson.
The OCC is Delta’s command center. Dozens of computer and video screens display world maps, weather patterns, flight schedules and 24-hour news networks.
Experts in flight dispatch, meteorology and crew movements stand ready to respond to any storm, aircraft problem or other disruption around the world that prompts a need to reroute flights or rejigger flight schedules.
After all of North America has gone dark, they monitor Asia, Europe, South America and the rest of the globe.
Duty director Vincent Belfini sits at a desk with five computer screens displaying Delta’s massive flight operation.
“We can recover airplanes anywhere in the world,” Belfini says. “It’s a chess game” that requires precise, coordinated movements of aircraft, crews and passengers.
One of his priorities is setting up for a smooth daytime flight schedule.
“I’m looking at the weather in the morning or afternoon (for the next day, worldwide) to see what I can reasonably land in our major airports.”
If a snowstorm hits and there are 600 flights scheduled for departure but the airline can only de-ice 12 aircraft an hour, “those are the really, really difficult decisions we have to make,” Belfini says. “It just gets really ugly.”
With decades of experience, Belfini has seen everything, including a Dakar, Senegal, flight in which a bird got sucked into the plane’s engine.
When that happens, the passengers can tell something’s amiss.
“They smell chicken,” Belfini says.