What our sole commercial airport needs

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport had 96 million passengers pass through it in 2014, making it the busiest airport in the world, according to Airports Council International. So it isn’t a surprise the airport is operating near capacity.

Atlanta’s passenger traffic has grown five percent and airplane movements are up three percent, so this year is poised to be the world’s busiest airport’s busiest ever.

Ideally, a region Atlanta’s size would have two or more commercial airfields. With 5.6 million people, ours is the only region its size in the country without a second airport with scheduled airline service. Assuming we remain a one-airport region, there are going to be several needs in coming years.

Parking is an issue for customers and employees. The busiest days of the year, every domestic lot is full. As a result, many passengers must use off-airport parking. Between 34 and 51 percent (6,800 to 10,000 vehicles) of current off-site parking users would park at the airport if space permitted. Hartsfield-Jackson plans to replace the existing parking decks with two, new, eight-story structures for customers and will add lots for employees.

Certain airport roadways and passenger drop-off and pick-up areas are deficient. Some areas are serving twice as many vehicles as they were designed for. And poorly designed roadways are causing congestion and traffic accidents. The airport’s improvements of curb usage, automated vehicle detection and passenger signals will help, but they may not be enough.

During busy morning and afternoon connecting times, restroom availability is a problem. While it is not included in the plan, the airport should investigate expanding existing or adding restrooms, particularly in the T, A and B concourses.

Boarding gates are another need. The airport has 207 gates, 188 of which are usable. The remaining gates are too close together for today’s larger airplanes. While Southwest Airlines has given up some gates, a recent check revealed only four potentially open gates. With the rapid growth of ultra-low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit airlines serving Atlanta, those gates aren’t likely to stay vacant for long.

The plan to add new international concourses G, H and I would provide sufficient gates, but adding gates to existing concourses would better serve domestic passengers. Domestic service is growing much faster than international service. The airport may be able to add gates to the north and south sides of concourses A, B and C and the south side of D. This would require moving or downgrading two taxiways, but it is a trade-off worth examining. There may also be room to add new gates to Concourse E by adding a parallel mini-concourse with gates east of the existing terminals and north of gate E18 and south of E17.

Increasing flight operations may necessitate adding a new runway by 2025. The addition of a sixth, closely spaced, south midfield runway makes sense; however, its proximity to other runways will provide only a modest capacity increase. With the new proposed gate complex east of Terminal F, the airport should consider a widely spaced north runway.

Airport construction is not cheap. The major funding source is likely to be passenger facility charges, a fee per enplaned passenger. PFCs are a true user fee; only those who fly pay them. As a result of inflation, though, these fees have lost about 40 percent of their value since 2000. A proposed $2.50 increase to $7 is a reasonable way for airports to fund needed improvements.

Finally, one of Hartsfield-Jackson’s biggest needs is something it has no control over: getting to and from the airport in Atlanta traffic. While the airport is south of I-20, more than 70 percent of its customers live north of I-20. Many airport trips take at least an hour even when traffic is flowing freely. During heavy traffic, the unpredictability of Atlanta’s congestion causes customers and employees to build in buffer time.

As a result, many airport and airline employees are forced to live close by. Georgia DOT’s proposed express lane network could reduce travel times for existing customers and spur greater airport usage. In the short term, express lanes on I-285; and in the long term, the proposed north-south expressway/tunnel connecting Ga. 400 and I-675 with a spur to I-85 south, could increase airport accessibility.

More people fly through Hartsfield-Jackson than at any other airport in the world. Atlanta has work to do to keep up with travelers’ demands.

Baruch Feigenbaum is a Georgia-based transportation policy analyst.

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