Hartsfield-Jackson’s master plan grows in price, complexity

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Price tag for airport renovations to nearly double to $11.5 billion through 2042

The world’s busiest airport is reengineering its master plan to update aging facilities and expand — a multibillion-dollar facelift that’s expected to cost nearly double the original estimate.

The ambitious plan — meant to ready Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for a future in which it handles millions more passengers — has grown to $11.5 billion in projects and now extends through 2042.

Back in 2016, airport officials embarked on what was then supposed to be a 20-year, $6 billion expansion and modernization plan to update airport facilities that date to 1980.

Inflation, the labor crunch and supply chain issues account for some of the cost hike — which passengers will pay in part through fees on airline tickets. But the soaring price tag also reflects the complexity of overhauling an airport while it’s in use.

The renovations will touch nearly every facet of travel through Hartsfield-Jackson. The airport plans to add more domestic gates, widen Concourse D, and demolish and reconstruct the domestic terminal parking decks.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Hartsfield-Jackson will benefit from broader goals by the Biden administration to inject hundreds of millions of federal dollars into airports across the country to make them more efficient and competitive on a global scale.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the economic engine of the southeast, and we need to invest in its infrastructure for continued growth and leadership of the aviation industry.

- Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens

Improvements and expansions in Atlanta and other airports around the country are long overdue, said William Rankin, an adjunct professor of airport management at the Florida Institute of Technology.

“That growth is going to come,” Rankin said. “A lot of U.S. airports are not nearly as modern or as prepared for future traffic growth as the rest of the world, and that is really a shame.”

Hartsfield-Jackson also plans to renovate decades-old facilities, including the Terminal North check-in area and international Concourse E.

“We have an old facility. It goes back many decades,” said Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Balram Bheodari.

But refinements to the 2016 master plan also include some cuts. Planners, for instance, have shelved a proposed sixth runway that would have cost nearly $1 billion. It’s not currently needed based on flight counts.

“There is a shift in airline focus,” Bheodari said. Many are now using larger jets, which can transport more passengers with fewer takeoffs and landings. But those jets, which bring larger volumes of passengers through the terminal and concourse, need more gate space.

The COVID-19 pandemic showed that sustained growth in air travel is far from certain. Unexpected events can decimate demand and disrupt operations for years. Traffic has still not fully recovered, particularly some segments of international travel. The airport’s $1.4 billion international terminal built in 2012 is still mostly empty for much of the day aside from peak periods.

ExploreHartsfield-Jackson’s international terminal turns 10 with turbulence

And the expansion projects won’t be easy on travelers. Navigating through an airport constantly under construction is a headache. Ongoing projects to extend the Plane Train track and shore up parking decks are already causing hassles for travelers trying to find parking near the terminal.

“It’s inconvenient, but in the long run it will probably be good,” said Sybil Schaer, who is originally from Atlanta and flew into Hartsfield-Jackson recently. “The airport has been vital to the city.”

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Building on the original footprint

Preparing for future passenger volume takes years of planning and construction. And expanding is particularly challenging on Hartsfield-Jackson’s limited footprint. The terminal complex sits in the middle of the airfield with its five parallel runways designed for efficiency.

The Atlanta airport has for decades had a reputation in the aviation industry for having one of the most efficient layouts in the country, enabling passengers to quickly and easily connect between flights via parallel concourses linked by a single underground Plane Train line.

ExplorePhotos: Atlanta Airport through the years

Maintaining that efficiency is tricky. While other major airport hubs like New York LaGuardia and Los Angeles International are building new terminals and demolishing old ones, Hartsfield-Jackson is not demolishing any of its terminals or concourses. It’s simply building onto them — an ongoing construction project at a facility that draws hundreds of thousands of travelers each day.

Credit: Source: Hartsfield-Jackson

Credit: Source: Hartsfield-Jackson

“We are landlocked, and we are limited,” Bheodari said. But there are advantages to keeping the airport’s original design intact, he said. When other airports build new terminals, it can be a struggle to connect passengers between the new and old facilities.

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One of the airport’s biggest and most expensive undertakings will be widening the existing Concourse D.

Hartsfield-Jackson originally planned to expand some of the gate areas in a relatively small $50 million project. Now, the airport is set to widen the entire two-level concourse, requiring construction of a wider floor, roof and ceiling, as well as the demolition of the existing walls and construction of new walls. Also planned is an extension of the concourse, larger restrooms and other improvements. The new price tag: $1.4 billion.

To construct the wider concourse, the airport plans to close several gates at a time and keep the remaining gates operational.

Global airport expansions

Hartsfield-Jackson’s expansion comes as other major hubs have undergone massive facelifts of their own.

Los Angeles International is in the middle of a $15 billion modernization program, including terminal and concourse expansions.

New York City-area airports, including LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy International and Newark Liberty, are in the midst of a $30 billion redevelopment.

David Pitts, a traveler from Oregon who flew into Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game, has noticed revamps of other airports, including Salt Lake City and Minneapolis-St. Paul International.

Hartsfield-Jackson “definitely is cleaned up” compared to the past, Pitts said, but he added that more improvements likely make sense if Hartsfield-Jackson is to remain a major hub.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Some foreign governments have spent billions building massive airports in Dubai and Beijing with an eye on developing a leading international connecting hub and capturing the business of transporting jet-setters around the world.

“A lot of U.S. airports are in catch-up mode with the rest of the world,” Rankin said. In Dubai, “they have built the infrastructure 20 years into the future.”

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Delta’s dominance

While the near doubling of the price tag for Hartsfield-Jackson’s long-term expansion is eye-popping, airport officials say they have gotten most of the approvals needed from the airlines that will fund the projects.

Hartsfield-Jackson is owned and operated by the City of Atlanta and overseen by the city council transportation committee. But it’s self-supporting and not paid for out of the city of Atlanta budget. More than 63,000 people work at Hartsfield-Jackson, and the airport generates $82 billion in economic impact in the Southeast, according to a 2020 airport report.

“We came together with the signatory airlines and said, ‘Hey, there’s more projects that we want to do,’” said Frank Rucker, Hartsfield-Jackson’s deputy general manager of infrastructure.

Bheodari said the federal government’s infusion of funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, including $40 million for the Concourse D widening, is also enabling the additional spending.

However, there are also limits on what kind of projects the airport can feasibly complete.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Hartsfield-Jackson must get “majority-in-interest” approval from Delta Air Lines for major projects, because Delta handles 75% of all passengers at Hartsfield-Jackson, not including Delta Connection and international partners. Airlines help pay for airport projects through lease payments and landing fees.

ExploreDelta wields clout in new airport lease talks

“We’re proud to support Atlanta’s expansive economic growth,” said Delta spokeswoman Catherine Morrow. “We think this project will obviously do that in maintaining and upgrading the world’s busiest airport.”

But the expansion projects currently planned do not include major gate expansions that would allow significant growth by competing airlines.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

ExploreJetBlue jockeys for prime gates at Hartsfield-Jackson

No longer planned is a Concourse G for additional international gates. A project to build a hotel next to the domestic terminal was also canceled by the developer this year.

The Concourse D widening project will actually reduce the number of gates available from 40 to 34 gates, because it will combine some smaller gates into larger gate areas. To compensate, the airport plans to build three domestic gates on a wing off Concourse E. Also offsetting the loss will be a five-gate extension of Concourse T to be completed later this year.

But all told, the Hartsfield-Jackson of the future will have only a few more gates than it did in 2012, the last major expansion with the opening of the international terminal and Concourse F.

Airport officials are considering whether to add more gates by extending some other concourses, such as T to the south or B, C, D or F.

“The demand for air service will continue to grow,” Bheodari said.