You could be questioned the next time you go to ATL airport. Here’s why

New policy means Hartsfield-Jackson will be closed to general public 24/7; police may ask you for ‘credentials.’
Security lines back up in the south terminal at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. Monday, November 27th, 2023 (Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Hendren for the AJC

Credit: Ben Hendren for the AJC

Security lines back up in the south terminal at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. Monday, November 27th, 2023 (Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is a public-use airport owned and operated by the city of Atlanta, but will soon be closed to the general public 24 hours a day.

Airport officials say those permitted will be ticketed passengers, those assisting or meeting or greeting passengers, and others who work at the airport or who have “business at the airport.”

As part of enforcement of the new policy, those in the airport could be questioned by police and asked to show “credentials.”

It’s an expansion of an existing policy in place since 2018 that has limited access to the facility between 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m., as the airport faced a growing issue of homeless people sleeping in the terminal.

Officials say the new policy expanding restricted access to 24 hours a day is aimed at improving safety and security at the world’s busiest airport, which is also dealing with complaints about baggage theft and unauthorized drivers soliciting passengers.

Yet there are as many as 80,000 or more people streaming into the Atlanta airport terminals on a daily basis, and airport officials have not voiced plans to screen every person entering.

Instead, Atlanta police say they plan to expand a system they have been using during overnight hours.

During those overnight hours, “If there are any citizens in the airport, they are frequently challenged by Atlanta police officers and simply asked for a boarding pass and what business they have with the airport,” said Gary Harper, Atlanta police commander of the community services division, in a recorded video message. “What the ordinance is now going to entail is a 24-hour enforcement of that same policy.” The Atlanta City Council approved an amendment to a related loitering ordinance this week.

Harper said over the next 60 days, police will be “engaging citizens 24 hours a day.” A police officer may ask if you have business at the Atlanta airport, Harper said.

“If you have business with the airport that is any legitimate business and you have the credentials for your business, you are free to flow through the airport at any time,” Harper said. Family members may pick up passengers and “you’re more than welcome to do that. That is what we consider business at the airport,” he said. It’s unclear what credentials would qualify to prove someone is picking up passengers at the airport.

“After that 60 days, we’re currently reviewing our policy on how exactly we want to move forward with the enforcement of this policy,” Harper said.

Meanwhile, there could be some confusion about the policy.

Earlier this week, Hartsfield-Jackson temporarily had a large graphic in a rotating display at the top of its website homepage indicating that people should not pick up passengers in the terminal or at baggage claim, and should only pick up passengers at the curb.

But that’s more restrictive than what the airport ordinance says — which does allow people to pick up passengers in the terminal or at baggage claim. The airport has since removed that graphic from that spot on its homepage.

Los Angeles International Airport and Philadelphia International Airport have similar policies of closing to the general public 24 hours a day. Their policies were originally instituted in 2020 early in the COVID-19 pandemic as travel plummeted.

In Atlanta, there has long been an airport loitering ordinance, restrictions on drivers soliciting customers and a requirement to register to picket at the airport.

Blaise Waguespack, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor, said police officers and security personnel may see people in the airport who have prompted complaints in the past. When the airport is open to the public, police may try to monitor them for any illegal activity. Restricting access to the airport, on the other hand, may give authorities the “power to... take action and hopefully, you know, control this situation,” Waguespack said.

The challenge, he said, is “how do you try and craft the policy to deal with such situations and keep it narrow enough so that it’s only targeting that, without interfering with legitimate passengers coming in.”

Barbara Lichman, an attorney who specializes in aviation industry law, said she thinks the policy is “overly broad,” restricting too many uses that “might be annoying to the airport, but are not in any way illegal” — such as inspectors or media coverage.

In fact, the city ordinance in place since 2021 that allows the airport manager to set the hours for when the airport is closed to the general public is narrowly written, saying:

“During the hours that the airport is closed to the general public, the only persons allowed to enter or be present in the airport domestic and international terminals, sky train, rental car center, and parking decks are ticketed passengers or passengers with a boarding pass, persons assisting ticketed passengers or passengers with a boarding pass, and airport personnel with airport-issued identification badges.”

That would mean those visiting the airport for job interviews or meetings also would technically not be allowed in the terminal.

Lichman noted there is constitutional protection for interstate commerce at airports and questioned whether the policy could “interfere with passengers who don’t look like passengers” — who may be “scruffy, but they’re still passengers, or they’re waiting for passengers.”

The airport has in the past conducted many events open to the public, including job fairs, a food fair called Taste of Hartsfield-Jackson and other events. Until now, the airport’s domestic terminal and international terminal concessions have been open to the public during working hours, including a restaurant called the A Bar and Grill, a barber shop, lottery stores and other shops in the domestic terminal; and a Sweet Auburn Market location and other outlets in the international terminal.

There are also public art displays in terminal areas outside security checkpoints at Hartsfield-Jackson, including an exhibit in the domestic terminal that’s a tribute to the late Congressman John Lewis with videos, artifacts photos. Also in the pre-security area of the domestic terminal near the atrium is a tribute wall to veterans that is mentioned on a Library of Congress website.

The airport has also for years had rotating art displays in the domestic terminal. And in the international terminal is a large portrait of former Mayor Maynard Jackson, who is also the namesake for that terminal.It’s yet to be seen how police may respond to visitors to the terminals to see those exhibits and art displays, and any future public events.

Waguespack noted that while public commercial airports used to be seen as destinations to watch planes take off and land, now in the minds of many they’re “affiliated with a hassle factor” that people want to avoid.