Hartsfield-Jackson Soars to New Heights

The world’s busiest airport is ever improving, with expanded concourses, state-of-the-art parking lots, enhanced technology and a better customer experience.

Across the country, the aviation industry is experiencing resurgent demand for air travel, resulting in more investment in airport infrastructure across North America than ever before. Larger security checkpoints, more reliable and faster baggage systems, better roadways and multimodal connections are just some of the improvements passengers will see nationwide.

That consumer demand is alive and well at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the first airport in history to serve more than 1 million passengers in a single year and once again the busiest airport in the world. Always focused on the efficiency of its operations, the airport moves some 250,000 passengers a day through its facilities. Whether passengers are flying to a nearby city or the other side of the world, the goal is to keep them moving and keep them happy.

Hartsfield-Jackson routinely receives industry recognition for setting the bar when it comes to concessions, operations, sustainability, architectural engineering and construction. Along with the ports of Savannah and Brunswick, the Atlanta airport is among the crown jewels of economic development that made Georgia the No. 1 state for business for the ninth consecutive year, and it boasts a direct economic impact of $66 billion for the state.

With that volume of activity and ever-changing improvements in aviation technology, keeping such a large facility up to date is an ongoing challenge. Toward that end, the airport’s capital improvement program, ATLNext, includes an $11 billion to-do list that encompasses expansion of Concourse D, two new parking decks, updated technology, expansion of the ticket lobby, and improvements to the Plane Train and SkyTrain systems.

Efficiency Top of Mind

Being the global leader in airport efficiency and exceptional customer service is the vision at Hartsfield-Jackson, says Frank Rucker, airport deputy general manager of infrastructure. Scheduling projects like the $1.4 billion Concourse D expansion align with that vision.

“We realize our facility is aging … so we’re constantly looking at either renewal or replacement of existing systems, that critical infrastructure for handling capacity because we have shown continued long-term growth,” he says, noting Concourses A, B, C and D were constructed and opened in 1980.

Concourse D, specifically, was constructed at 60 feet wide to accommodate regional jets. In comparison, A, B and C are 90 feet wide.

“That 30-foot differential means a lot,” says Rucker, noting the airport now accommodates larger planes on that concourse and will expand it to 99 feet. “If you’ve ever gone through Concourse D, you know how congested it can get, especially when they’re boarding aircraft and people are in there queuing, so it’s not a very good customer service offering.”

While a regional jet accommodates 50 to 75 passengers, larger planes such as a 737 or an Airbus A321 carry around 150 passengers, says Rucker. “As airlines upgauge their fleets to larger aircraft … it just necessitated the need to expand,” he says.

Undertaking such a large expansion project at the world’s busiest airport while maintaining quality customer experience is quite a feat. While it would have made the project much easier, closing the entire concourse for the length of the project was never an option, says Rucker. To impact travel as little as possible, both in terms of convenience for passengers and dollars for the airlines, only eight gates will be taken out of service at a time. Through the reconfiguration, Concourse D will drop from 40 gates to 34 when the expansion is complete.

“It’s going to be quite a complicated piece of work, from a standpoint of how we are going to construct it,” says Rucker. “It’ll be the first time we utilize what we call modular construction.”

For the first two phases, two 30-foot frames – to flank each side of the existing concourse – will be constructed offsite and brought in and positioned precisely by self-propelled motorized transit vehicles that move at walking speed and can transport large structures. Phase three will be traditional construction onsite. All told, the Concourse D expansion will take about six years, with a completion date for the entire project set for April 2029, he says.

So, what about those smaller regional planes delivering smaller groups of passengers?

“At that point, the whole facility will be sized for the upgraded fleet, or the upgauge, as the airlines like to reference it. Those small planes will get fewer and fewer and eventually probably go away,” he says, noting they will be accommodated until then. “Now, when the airlines will stop flying those, you know, it depends on which airlines you talk to. But  ultimately, they want to put more people on those flights.”

Also, to improve efficiency in accommodating the increasing number of passengers, in December the airport opened its Concourse T North extension, a $341 million project that added more than 35,000 square feet of concourse and concessions space.

Going Forward

Another piece of ATLNext is the ongoing parking deck renewal project, which will shore up the parking facilities with the goal of prolonging the decks’ lifespan until they eventually need to be replaced. South deck repairs cost approximately $17 million and will extend the parking deck’s life by roughly five years. North deck repairs will cost approximately $20 million to extend that deck’s life by 10 years. While improvements are ongoing, 3,000 North deck spaces have remained available throughout the project. The complete replacement of both the North and South decks will take place over the coming years.

“Our parking program over the next 10 years will be very robust,” says Rucker, adding that a phased plan includes complete demolition and reconstruction of the North and South terminal decks.

Construction of the new South deck begins this month in the north half of the current South Economy Lot, says Rucker.

Once completed, the new South deck will be seven levels tall and include about 7,800 parking stalls. Like ATL West deck, the new South deck will feature state-of-the-art components such as digital parking space availability and wayfinding, ticketless entry and exit, LED lighting and other features to provide a seamless parking experience.

In addition, crews will enhance airport technology throughout the facility, expand the North terminal ticket lobby and reconfigure the rest of the lobby, he says. Ongoing airfield projects will continue to refresh pavement, and a lot of work is planned for the Plane Train that travels along three miles of underground track to move passengers throughout the airport, as well as the elevated SkyTrain that connects the passenger terminal to the rental car center, adds Rucker.

Passengers will see renewal of vertical transportation systems – elevators and escalators – and updates of technological infrastructure for better Wi-Fi and better service systems, adds J’Aimeka “Jai” Ferrell, the airport’s deputy general manager and chief commercial officer. “Some of the airports are also going to AI and different types of EV-based products and equipment, and we have to have infrastructure to support that.”

More work on concourses is also planned, including a major job on Concourse E as the airport begins to replace some of the critical operating systems and make some architectural modifications to bring a new, more modern feel to the concourse.