How Atlanta Became the World's Busiest Airport, Again


Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was just named the world's busiest for the 21st year in a row. Adam Linke/Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

Flying in or out of the Atlanta airport — Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, or ATL, if we're being aviationally accurate — can be, for the meek or unseasoned traveler, an intimidating proposition.

Hartsfield-Jackson is, proudly, the busiest airport in the world — yet again, according to the Airports Council International's world traffic report, which was released on Sept. 16, 2019. More than 107 million passengers scurried along its lengthy concourses, rode its underground train (the Plane Train) and were lifted up and down its vertigo-inducing escalators in 2018, making it the busiest passenger airport in the world for 21 years in a row.

Everyone Flies Through Atlanta

The whole traveling world, it seems, makes its way through Atlanta at some point. To complete that one-way trip to the Pearly Gates, the old joke goes, you have to make a connection through Atlanta first.

The people who run ATL would like to point out, though, that carrying around the trophy for the world's busiest airport is wonderful and all. They're plenty proud of it. But there's more to the Atlanta airport than just lots and lots of bodies moving about.

"Well, when you're No. 1 in anything, you take pride in it," the airport's General Manager, John Selden, says. "But the most important thing is we are the most efficient. That truly is the prize and what we are most proud of. That efficiency."

The Air Transport Research Society (ATRS) at the University of Maryland has named ATL the most efficient airport in the world 15 times, including in 2018. The ATRS bases its rankings on several criteria, including costs to run, costs to the airlines and cost-competitiveness with other airports. The rankings delve into the productivity and other financials.

The rankings, too, weigh all that into how airports work; that is, how quickly they get people where they're going. "An airplane only makes money," Selden says, "when it's in the air."

No place gets people on planes better than Atlanta.

concourse B concourse B
Passengers rush around concourse B, where most domestic Delta flights originate.
Adam Linke/Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

Why Atlanta's Airport Is King

Delta, headquartered in Atlanta, is one of the world's largest airlines, toting around some 180 million passengers a year. Hartsfield-Jackson is the carrier's (and the world's) biggest hub. More than 1,000 Delta flights, to 225 cities, leave ATL every day. More than 75 percent of Atlanta's passengers are on Delta flights.

That's no doubt the biggest reason that so many people find themselves in the Capital of the New South — or at least in the city's airport — every year.

But Atlanta, the city, has advantages other than Delta that make it a good place to fly into and out of, not to mention a smart spot for airlines to do business. According to Hartsfield-Jackson, more than 80 percent of the U.S. population lives within a two-hour flight of ATL. The weather is generally good — meaning fewer delays and canceled flights — and there is little competition for the airspace around Hartsfield-Jackson. (Unlike places like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and many others, in Atlanta, there's not another big airport within 150 miles.)

The relative certainty that flights will get in and out with little problem — and the ability to offer more flights because of that certainty — means that Atlanta is an attractive place for low-cost airlines. Frontier, Southwest and Spirit are big players at the Atlanta airport, too.

In all, Hartsfield-Jackson brings in and sends away some 2,700 flights and averages more than 275,000 passengers each day. About 85 percent of the airport's flights, according to Selden, are on time.

"I've been here for 23 years and I'm still amazed at the size of the facility, how well it runs ... I go in and out of it every day and there's always people scurrying around," says Tom Nissalke, the airport's assistant general manager of planning. "It's quite a place."

the Plane Train the Plane Train
The airport's famous "Plane Train" shuttles passengers throughout the airport, from concourse to concourse, and to baggage claim.
Melissa Bugg/Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

How They Do It

To get people in and out, and to keep them moving, takes a constant focus on what's working and what's not, and a willingness to change seemingly little things to make the entire enterprise run more smoothly.

"It's a complex operation," Selden says. "One little piece going astray can cause massive chain-reaction ramifications. To keep the complexity of this operation running smoothly, it takes a village."

The stakeholders at the airport include the City of Atlanta (which owns and operates it), but 35 different airlines (including cargo shippers), the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Customs and Border Protection (it is an international airport), hundreds of vendors, thousands of workers, and many other entities and individuals have a voice in how things work. And it's no wonder so many want a piece of this pie: ATL generates an estimated economic impact of $34.8 billion in metro Atlanta.

As with all airports — as with all life — things don't go smoothly 100 percent of the time. Back in December of 2017, a fire in an underground area that houses electrical systems crippled the airport for days, canceling flights, leaving travelers stranded and costing millions.

And sometimes, even the best-run operations can be overrun through no fault of their own. On Feb. 4, 2019, the Monday after the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams played in the Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta, Hartsfield-Jackson was slammed with fans making their way home. Some passengers waited in lines at TSA checkpoints for two hours.

Nearly 102,000 people were screened that day, an Atlanta record. (That 275,000 passengers a day mark is mostly arrivals and those connecting in Atlanta; neither of those groups needs to go through security screening.)

Those kinds of delays, though, are rare in Atlanta. Getting people through the airport as efficiently as possible is of paramount importance. No one spends money, after all, standing in a security line.

"As you look at passenger flow over time, it's always trying to eliminate the bottleneck," Nissalke says. "Sometimes, when you fix one bottleneck then it's another bottleneck somewhere else."

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
This aerial view of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport shows how extensive the runway system actually is.
Adam Linke/Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport

The Past, Present and Future

When Nissalke started at Hartsfield-Jackson in the 1990s — the airport, by the way, is named for two former Atlanta mayors, William B. Hartsfield and Maynard Jackson — many of the delays came at check-in. People queued up in long lines to show their IDs, have their boarding passes issued and get their bags checked. At that time, the lines at security, Nissalke says, weren't long because the lines were effectively being metered at check-in.

Now, with many people checking in online and using other fast-track check-in means — Delta can check in many fliers in Atlanta through facial recognition — more lines are forming at the TSA checkpoints.

"If one day technology enhances throughput at the checkpoint, the next bottleneck is going to be the escalators trying to get down to the train," Nissalke says. "It's always trying to chase that bottleneck, eliminate the bottleneck."

Even as current holdups are being reduced or largely eliminated, Atlanta's airport has a 20-year, multi-billion dollar plan to speed things further. Hartsfield-Jackson is adding an "end-around taxiway" to runway 9L so incoming planes can get to the terminal without crossing other runways and slowing down other planes. The airport has plans to construct a bypass at the end of the Plane Train's route that will shave off 18 seconds between stops. Huge, arched steel-supported canopies are now being erected on each side of the main terminal, which will help move people to parking decks more quickly — and without getting rained on, too.

Atlanta has won the title of "world's busiest airport" — as determined by Airports Council International — every year since 2000. But Beijing and Dubai are not far behind, and others threaten ATL's title. Istanbul has plans to build 10 runways to a new state-of-the-art airport and someday move a stunning 200 million people a day (around twice as many as ATL).

For now, though, Atlanta remains king. And, even if it loses its place as world's busiest, knocking off this virtual mini-city as the "most efficient" airport — in terms of the money it makes, the service and value it provides for its airline customers and the speed in which it moves people — will make for a rough fight. Competitors better buckle up.