How does the world's busiest airport prepare for a new terminal?

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is building a $1.35 million international terminal. Before opening day in 2012, there will be new procedures, focus groups and simulations to make it a seamless transition for passengers.

I lived in Atlanta for four years, and my memories of the airport usually have to do with being the 17th or so Delta aircraft in line for takeoff. The gates were just as busy as the runways. Current FAA data predicts the airport will serve 13 million international passengers a year by 2015.

So I was glad to hear about the new international terminal under construction at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, due to open in spring 2012. But how does the world’s busiest airport—serving more than 88 million passengers annually—seamlessly incorporate a new, $1.35 billion, 1.2 million-square-foot, 12-gate terminal? Very carefully.

I recently talked with David Gruber, the project manager for activation of the Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal, which is being built without taxpayer dollars. Excerpts of our conversation are below.

What were the original goals in building this terminal?

The airport had some very specific goals in creating an eastern door to the airport and creating a better experience for the international travelers coming into Atlanta. Especially those who would terminate in Atlanta.

A lot of negative feedback we got was people having to recheck their bags. When you arrive today, you go to the passport, immigration control and customs areas, and if your destination is Atlanta, you then give your bags back. They go back into the system and you get them on the other side of the train system. For those who live in Atlanta who had just flown a long international flight, I don’t think that’s a very popular situation. It just delays the process of leaving the airport.

So we wanted to create a better international gateway in Atlanta; to have a dedicated international terminal; to incorporate the latest in duty-free areas and concession areas and security; and to be able to process more passengers. The projection is that we will have 13 million international passengers [per year] by 2015.

What are some of the trends with terminals being built today?

Because of all the changes after 9/11, you see a lot more changes that take place after the passenger goes through security screening, whereas before, you saw it before security--because they are limited in what they can bring through in terms of food and drinks. This facility gives us an opportunity to capture that. We’re looking at things that enhance that experience.

Tell me about the layout.

Everyone realizes people are spending more time in the airport because of how early you have to be there, so we’re doing more in terms of natural light and creating an open and inviting atmosphere. There’s more of a central court area where people can congregate, get a bite to eat, shop. It gives you more of an overall sense of space rather than giving you a feeling of being closed in, which is how some of the older terminal buildings feel—like you’re in a tunnel.

Will there be smoking areas?

There is only one in this building, and that came up in discussion the other day. We’re probably dictated more by the fact that it’s an international terminal, and from a customer service standpoint, from our international customers we see there still is a demand for that.

So the busiest airport in the world is opening a new terminal. How will the patterns change, and how do you prepare for that?

It’s a question we’ve been wrestling with for five months. We bring together airline partners, government agencies and stakeholders. We have focus groups that are handling issues like that—how do we communicate to passengers and employees the differences. It goes beyond signage and comes down to communicating it to the public well enough in advance so they can ask questions. We’re having a lot of meetings on the communications message. There will be a lot of changes—not so much for connecting passengers—but for folks who are arriving and staying in Atlanta.

Do you run a trial? How do you practice all this before you have real flights at the gates?

The fact that it’s not a stand-alone building means that it’s a process. We will trial different aspects of the building--we may put some people in there from an airline and ask them to go from the gate to the immigration control area. From there we may go to something larger and have more people in the building.

The goal is to simulate opening day. You reach out to community groups and give them a script. Your script would say,

  • “Melanie: You’re a Delta passenger, flying to Prague, leaving out of gate F1. We need you to proceed through security and toward your gate. On the way, buy a newspaper, go to the restroom and find your way to the gate.”

We’d ask you to do that and make comments, like “I had problems seeing the bathroom” or “I couldn’t find my gate,” which hopefully never happens. When you get to the gate you’d be an arriving passenger, and you’d get another script, where we need you to clear customs, and if you’re connecting, find your way to the train system to find your next gate.

Then we’d do a debriefing: What did you like, what didn’t you like. We get the answers back and determine if we have a real problem. You always want to do that before opening day. You’re so enveloped in it, sometimes you can overlook things because you’re so close.

We may put some other things into a simulation—we train on all the new procedures before we do the simulation. We do small things and build up. When we opened the new rental car center we pretended we had a lost child in the building. There’s a lot we can do with first responders and law enforcement. That’s a big part of the education process. With government agencies and our employees, we all need to understand the changes and make sure that opening day isn’t the first time they’ve had to encounter it.

Sounds like a lot of moving parts.

We track this on a project schedule, and we have over 1,700 separate line items we’re tracking. We have to bring resolution to or have already resolved all of them.

Such as?

In the case of the airport, there are regulatory items we have to make sure are done, navigation charts that need to be updated, new evacuation procedures need to be created and people trained on them. Those are just some of the larger things, but then we have some outside-the-building issues, such as aircraft movement and how we will push planes into and out of the gate. We need to determine how those procedures will be written.

We actually have some things at the building we don’t have anywhere else at the airport—including a loading dock that doesn't have to go through security. So that’s a whole new set of operating plans and security plans. We’ve been reaching out to other airports to get an idea of how they’re doing it, and then we have to train our people on all the plans.

What kind of new technology are you using in the security areas?

One of the newest things—which won’t be so new when we open—is that the facility will incorporate body scanners. The hard thing with security is what we talk about today and what we do in 2012 could be very different. There could be different requirements we have to incorporate.

So how do you adapt? We’re not talking about cheap equipment.

You try to build flexibility into the building. But at the same time, at a certain point, you just won’t be able to get it in. If they came out in March 2012 and said there’s a new mandate, there just wouldn’t be enough time.

What we’ve done with the TSA is we do a complete review of security systems and make sure the camera coverage is what TSA wants and what security needs. That’s been a cross-functional team. A 1.2 million-square-foot building, and they’re looking at every camera in it. It’s been an exhausting process. I think they’re going to start meeting with customs and border control to do the same thing.

I think we’ll also get in discussions with the folks at the airlines to make sure they have the coverage they need as well. I don’t think there’s a government agency at the airport that’s not affected. When you’re talking about the international terminal, they’re all affected.

How many cameras will there be?

Over 400.

What kind of challenges have you run into?

How much time do you have?

I don’t know if there’s anything we weren’t prepared for or didn’t foresee a little bit. I’m sure we’ll get some daily fires. Right now the structure of the building is set, so our challenge is to come up with operational solutions that don’t increase the cost of the building. If you came back to me, in a year, then I could talk to you about the challenges.

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