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 April 11, 2022. That makes year No. 23 for Hartsfield-Jackson International. The airport held the title for 22 consecutive years before it was knocked out of the No. 1 spot in 2020 by Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in Southern China.
More than 75 million passengers scurried along ATL's lengthy concourses, rode its underground train (the Plane Train) and were lifted up and down its vertigo-inducing escalators in 2021, making it the busiest passenger airport in the world. That's a 76.4 percent increase over 2020's pandemic total when many people simply weren't traveling by plane. Hartsfield-Jackson also topped the list as the world's busiest in aircraft movements, with 707,661 operations, a 29.1 percent increase over 2020.
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.
"We are thrilled to see the overwhelming increase in passenger traffic and are proud to be the busiest passenger and flight operations airport in the world," airport general manager Balram "B" Bheodari said in a press statement. "As the aviation industry continues to rebound from the pandemic, we are excited to welcome passengers back to the skies. Our efficiency and brand of excellence could not be achieved without our employees, business partners, stakeholders and our community."
The Air Transport Research Society (ATRS) at the University of Maryland has named ATL the most efficient airport in the world 18 times, including again in 2021. 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 when it's in the air. No place gets people on planes better than Atlanta.
Why Atlanta's Airport Is King
Delta, headquartered in Atlanta, is one of the world's largest airlines, toting around some 200 million passengers a year. Hartsfield-Jackson is the carrier's (and the world's) biggest hub. According to Delta, about 745 Delta flights, to more than 275 cities, leave ATL every day. And about 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 brought in and sent away some 1,900 flights and averaged more than 207,000 passengers each day in 2021.
"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," Tom Nissalke, the airport's assistant general manager of planning said when we spoke to him in 2019. "It's quite a place."
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 complex and just one piece astray can cause a massive chain-reaction.
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. In December 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 said. "Sometimes, when you fix one bottleneck then it's another bottleneck somewhere else."
And of course there is the COVID-19 pandemic that nearly crippled the airlines and ground air travel to a halt. In 2020, Hartsfield-Jackson saw about 500,000 flights in out of the airport, a decrease of 21 percent from 2019. But the most drastic drop was in the number of passengers that flew in and out. In 2020 that number was around 17.8 million, a decrease of nearly 31.5 percent from 2019 numbers. In 2021, the number rebounded to more than 75 million, an increase of more than 76 percent.
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 said, 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 said. "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's added 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 were also erected on each side of the main terminals, which 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 except 2019. 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.
Originally Published: Sep 16, 2019