‘Travelers' take test flight of new airport terminal

Long lines, flight delays, malfunctioning equipment and suspicious bags -- such hiccups aren’t unusual on a typical day at the world’s busiest airport.

They are, however, unusual for a terminal that isn’t even open yet.

Those scenarios unfolded during an elaborate simulation exercise designed to test the Atlanta airport’s new international terminal, set to open May 16. Airport managers say they’ll start fixing problems identified by a crowd of mock travelers -- ranging from poor signage to balky restroom fixtures -- within days.

More than 1,600 volunteers streamed into the new $1.4 billion complex bright and early for the dry run. Hundreds had signed up to participate within hours of the airport’s call for helpers in March.

Many were eager to get a sneak peek at the gleaming 1.2 million square-foot terminal and 12-gate concourse -- and give some constructive criticism.

“It’s beautiful,” said travel agent Grace Terrell-McCoy. But she also thinks some signs on roads leading to the terminal, as well as inside, should be larger and more visible. “When you’re traveling, you’re just trying to get there” and need signs that are obvious, she said.

The airport gave each volunteer a trip itinerary and script, which they used to get to the new terminal off I-75, check in for a flight, get a fake boarding pass and check bags, pass through security, report to a gate and go through boarding.

Arriving test passengers went through Customs and immigration checks and claimed bags at the new terminal. They were also directed to look for restrooms, duty-free shops, concessions, the information desk, baggage office, taxi stand, shuttles or other amenities.

Signs in parking garages confused some travelers, while others said they had a hard time finding check-in counters for airlines not named Delta, the hometown giant that dominates Hartsfield-Jackson. At one point an escalator suddenly came to a halt, and some mock fliers had wrong names or missing information on their mock boarding passes.

“Where is AirTran?” asked Terrell-McCoy while wandering around in search of her gate. “Just trying to get from point A to point B is.... interesting,” she said.

Terrell-McCoy’s boarding pass didn’t list a gate -- a glitch airport project manager David Gruber advised her to report in the feedback survey the volunteers filled out.

“The worst part of this whole experience was waiting in line” at immigration, said Aaron Bonar of Roswell, adding that the wait felt like close to half an hour long.

Airport officials threw in some emergency drills to thicken the plot. They tested everything from police to medical response, including a passenger in cardiac arrest and an unattended bag holding a suspected bomb. It was also dress rehearsal for workers from the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection and police and fire departments. Airline employees tested computer systems, operations and procedures.

Hartsfield-Jackson deputy general manager Balram Bheodari said his team will process survey responses from the mock passengers by Friday. There’s time to fix problems, he said.

“I feel very confident” about a smooth opening, Bheodari said.

That’s crucial for Hartsfield-Jackson and the city of Atlanta, which owns and runs the airport, as well as for major tenants led by Delta. Good initial impressions can cement a new terminal’s positive image. Bad ones linger.

In this case, the opening is a bit more challenging because the terminal creates an entirely new entrance to Hartsfield-Jackson off I-75 for international travelers.

Domestic travelers will continue to use the main terminal entrance off I-85. Shuttles will connect the two terminals to allow for use of the airport MARTA station, the rental car complex and other circumstances. All that adds complexity and more room for error for stressed travelers.

At the same time, opening the new terminal will eliminate the cumbersome need for arriving Atlanta-bound travelers to recheck bags and take a train ride to the main terminal, or to go through security after clearing Customs.

The current baggage rigmarole is “a bit frustrating for anyone who lives here, because it’s like, ‘I just got here -- why do I have to recheck my bag?’” said mock traveler Daniel Radonski.

“It’s going to be so much more convenient,” he said.

The simulation attracted avid travelers and airport enthusiasts enthused to see the eye-catching row of international flags lining the road leading up to the airy, light-filled terminal with soaring ceilings.

Bonar took a day off his job to participate, saying he was “jumping up and down excited . . . I’ve been following the drama of this terminal being built for ten years.”

Despite the long wait at immigration, “I’m proud of the terminal,” Bonar said.

“I remember as a kid, thinking, ‘What would the future be like?’” he said, gazing at the curving, modern architecture of the new terminal. “This is what the future will be.”