Hartsfield-Jackson master plan increases in price and complexity

The world’s busiest airport is revamping its masterplan to update its aging facilities and expand – a multibillion-dollar facelift expected to cost nearly double the original estimate.

The ambitious plan – intended to prepare Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for a future in which it handles millions more passengers – has reached $11.5 billion worth of projects and now extends to 2042.

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 dating back to 1980.

Inflation, labor shortages and supply chain issues explain some of the rising costs – which passengers will pay in part through fees on plane tickets. But the price spike also reflects the complexity of servicing an airport in use.

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

Hartsfield-Jackson will benefit from the Biden administration’s broader goals of pumping hundreds of millions of federal dollars into the nation’s airports to make them more efficient and globally competitive.

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

“That growth is going to come,” Rankin said. “A lot of US airports aren’t as modern or prepared for future traffic growth as the rest of the world, and that’s a real shame.”

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

“We have an old facility. It goes back decades,” Hartsfield-Jackson chief executive Balram Bheodari said.

But the improvements made to the 2016 master plan also include some reductions. Planners, for example, shelved a sixth runway project that would have cost nearly $1 billion. It is currently not necessary depending on the number of flights.

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

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

And expansion plans won’t be easy for travellers. Navigating an airport that is constantly under construction is a headache. Plans underway to extend the Avion Train track and shore up parking decks are already causing hassle for travelers trying to park near the terminal.

“It’s not practical, but in the long run it’ll probably be fine,” said Sybil Schaer, an Atlanta native who recently traveled to Hartsfield-Jackson. “The airport has been vital to the city.”

Build on the original footprint

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

Atlanta Airport has for decades had a reputation in the aviation industry for having one of the most efficient layouts in the country, allowing passengers to connect quickly and easily between flights via parallel concourses connected by a only underground train line.

Maintaining this 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 just about building on them – an ongoing construction project at a facility that attracts hundreds of thousands of travelers every day.

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

One of the largest and most expensive undertakings at the airport will be to expand the existing Concourse D.

Hartsfield-Jackson originally planned to expand some of the entrance areas as part of a relatively modest $50 million project. Now the airport is set to widen the entire two-level concourse, requiring the construction of a wider floor, roof and ceiling, as well as the demolition of the existing walls and the construction of new walls. A lobby extension, larger restrooms and other upgrades are also planned. The new price: $1.4 billion.

To build the larger concourse, the airport plans to close several gates at once and keep the remaining gates operational.

Global Airport Extensions

Hartsfield-Jackson’s expansion comes as other major hubs have themselves undergone major facelifts.

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

New York-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 to Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game, noticed the revamp at other airports, including Salt Lake City and Minneapolis-St. Paul International.

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

Some foreign governments have spent billions to build huge airports in Dubai and Beijing in a bid to develop a top international hub and capture the transport activity of jet-setters around the world.

“Many US airports are in catch-up mode with the rest of the world,” Rankin said. In Dubai, “they built the infrastructure 20 years into the future”.

Delta Dominance

While the near doubling of the price of Hartsfield-Jackson’s long-term expansion is jaw-dropping, airport officials say they have secured most of the necessary approvals 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’s Transportation Committee. But it is self-sufficient and not funded by 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 sat down with the signatory airlines and said, ‘Hey, there’s more projects we want to do,'” said Frank Rucker, assistant general manager of infrastructure at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Bheodari said the federal government’s injection of funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, including $40 million for the expansion of Concourse D, also allows for additional spending.

However, there are also limits to the type of projects the airport can realistically undertake.

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

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

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

No more hall G is planned 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 expansion project will actually reduce the number of available gates from 40 to 34 gates, as it will combine smaller gates into larger gate areas. To compensate, the airport plans to build three inner gates on a wing off Concourse E. The loss will also be offset by a five-gate extension to Concourse T which will be completed later this year.

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

Airport officials are considering adding more gates by expanding other concourses, such as T to the south or B, C, D, or F.

“Demand for air services will continue to grow,” Bheodari said.

©2022 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Go to ajc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Sharon D. Cole