Atlanta's airport is the world's busiest

Forrest Brown | 27th April 2022

Residents of the Deep South refer to Atlanta as “The Big City.” However, after you leave the area, it begins to feel much smaller.

It’s only the country’s seventh-largest metropolitan region. It doesn’t even make the top 40 in metro regions around the world.

However, Atlanta can once again brag about having the world’s busiest airport in terms of passenger flow. It regained the top rank in 2021 after being knocked out in 2020 due to the epidemic. Even more impressive, that one-year glitch ended a sequence of No. 1 finishes that dated back to 1998.

You’d expect that the title of busiest airport would go to more populous cities and international crossroads, such as Tokyo, Dubai, or London, or at the very least a major metro region in the United States.

However, it turns out that when it comes to having the world’s busiest airport, bigger isn’t always better.

The story of how Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport rose to the top and stayed there for so long is an intriguing look at the convergence of long-term leadership performance and geographical luck.

CNN Travel asked Laurie Garrow, a civil engineering professor at Georgia Tech who specializes in aviation, what aspects contributed to Atlanta’s success.

Born from a speedway

It worked for Kevin Costner in 1989’s “Field of Ambitions,” and it worked for certain Atlanta leaders with their own dreams in the early 1900s long before that popular movie.

“I truly believe the No. 1 element is the local community’s support and the state’s dedication to attracting aviation industries since the 1920s,” Garrow said in a recent phone conversation.

She mentioned that the airport had its start when Asa Candler, the pioneer of Coca-Cola, gave the land where the old Atlanta Speedway once stood for the purpose of constructing an airport.

“I believe the state’s corporate leaders recognized the value of aviation from the beginning.”

William Hartsfield, a city alderman who later became mayor, was also present. Back in the 1920s, Garrow recalled, Hartsfield was a big advocate of airport spending, citing how much railroads had helped the city and state.

Long-term commitment

That push in the 1920s began what Garrow said was a series of major improvements coming roughly every 20 years:

  1. 1940s: In World War II, the airport’s two main carriers, Eastern and Delta, relinquished their aircraft to the military and switched their focus to training pilots and mechanics. “This continuous pilot training that was happening at [the airport] in terms of takeoffs and landings is what originally pushed Atlanta to the status of busiest airport in the US,” she said.
  2. 1960s: The airport opened a modern, jet-age terminal in 1961. Garrow said it was the first one built specifically for jet aircraft, and at the time, it was the largest passenger terminal in the country.
  3. 1980s: Less than 20 years later, the jet-age terminal was demolished and a new passenger terminal was constructed “with the same concourse structure we have today. When it was built in 1980, it was the largest in the world,” Garrow said. Then-Mayor Maynard Jackson was a big proponent of that effort. (The airport has gone through several name changes in its life. The current name, Hartsfield-Jackson, was bestowed in 2003 to honor those two ex-mayors and airport champions.)
  4. 2000s: Georgia created the Center of Innovation in Aerospace, which Garrow said helps promote the state as a desirable location for aviation companies.

Room to grow

People with good ideas happened to be at the right place at the right time. Atlanta, it turns out, was fertile ground for flight. For starters, the airport had potential to grow.

It was located about 10 miles south of downtown Atlanta, close enough to be convenient to the city’s core but far enough away to allow for future expansion. In a region characterised by primarily hillier topography, the land around the airport is also one of the few reasonably level regions.

Garrow compares it to New York City, which is densely populated and surrounded by water. Their airports just do not have enough space to expand. LaGuardia, for instance, is built partially on landfill already and has to grapple with coastal flooding. Hours inland and at an elevation of more than 1,000 feet (305 meters), Hartsfield-Jackson doesn’t have those concerns.

And it’s not just about how much space there is on the ground. Garrow explained, “Space can be thought of on the ground and in the air.”

To use the New York area as an example, three major airports serve a densely populated region, and air space is limited.

“The amount of takeoffs and landings they can do is restricted,” she explained. They must synchronize takeoffs and landings so that they do not obstruct the operations of other airports.

There are no similar problems in Atlanta.

‘Powerhouse of the South’

Another advantage of Hartsfield-Jackson is the lack of local competition.

“As cities grow in size, they usually have more than one airport serving them.

As a result, Atlanta is somewhat distinctive in this regard. It’s known as the ‘Powerhouse of the South,’ as I like to call it.”

This is not the case in Chicago, which has two airports: O’Hare and Midway. Or in Beijing, where Beijing Capital International was frequently the world’s second busiest airport until recently, when part of the passenger load was transferred to the new Daxing International Airport.

Take Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Texas, which will be the world’s second busiest airport in 2021. (DFW). In 2021, it had 62,465,756 passengers. That was well below Hartsfield-75,704,760. Jackson’s

However, Dallas Love Field, which handled 13,315,498 passengers in 2021, is a second major airport in the city. When you add those two Texas airports together, you get 75,781,254, which is just a smidgeon more than Atlanta (76,494).

In addition, Hartsfield-Jackson has a huge “catchment area,” with competitor airports located very far away, according to Garrow. (A catchment area is the radius around an airport from which commercial air service passengers can be expected.)

Larger airports, such as Nashville and Charlotte, are around 250 miles (400 kilometers) apart, which is far too far away to provide much competition.

“Atlanta is the only functioning airport in the area, so people travel a significant distance to use it,” Garrow explained.

Atlanta is in a very advantageous position. According to the airport, 80 percent of the US population is within a two-hour flight, although it is not too close to other large metro regions.

The Delta effect

It’s also advantageous to have Delta Air Lines’ world headquarters in Atlanta.

“I believe Delta’s innovations as a local airline in the area have… pushed or maintained Atlanta as the No. 1 airport over the years,” Garrow said.

“Delta was the first carrier to establish a hub and spoke network in 1955. So they were the ones who came up with the idea of using spokes to transport all those passengers into a hub where they could transfer “moving on to other places

Growth was also beneficial. Delta Air Lines may be able to expand internationally through mergers.

“They have a lot of joint venture relationships with international carriers that help them build up an international network and again bring passengers into Atlanta as the gateway for other travel into the US, or vice versa. Take the people from multiple locations in the US, filter them through Atlanta to then go internationally.”

Other factors

While pass-through hub traffic is the airport’s claim to fame, it doesn’t hurt that Atlanta is a major convention, business, and tourism destination, according to Garrow.

When people arrive, they can use the MARTA system to get direct access to key sections of the city. There is a direct line to the airport.

“Those airports that have given seamless links between the airport and… business hubs have done really well in the past,” Garrow remarked.

So, how’s the weather? That, according to Garrow, isn’t very helpful. It may be advantageous in the winter because there is less ice and snow, but thunderstorms in the summer make up for it.

Crystal ball

Georgia needs to preserve its No. 1 airport ranking, according to Garrow, since it helps attract business.

Can the airport, however, maintain its dominance? Things change, after all, and there are some true aviation pioneers out there, particularly in the Middle East and Asia.

“In the short run, I believe we will maintain our position or come close to it. And part of that is due to the fact that markets are responding differently to the Covid recovery…. The domestic US economy is relatively strong in comparison to other regions of the world.”

What about a few years from now? Garrow believes the airport is well positioned for potential developments like local air taxi services.

She believes that as electric battery and hydrogen technologies advance, we may witness a future when people living in the outskirts of a metro area fly to the airport in a tiny commuter plane and arrive much faster.

The design by Hartsfield-Jackson could help it win again. According to Garrow, the airport’s runways run east-west, but Atlanta’s population centers run north-south.

Because to the configuration, air taxis may be able to approach more easily without obstructing the larger jets.

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