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AIRPORT PROFILES Last modified on September 6, 2012

Build and grow

Joe Bates discovers that expansion and development are always on the mind of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s aviation general manager, Louis Miller.

The May 16 opening of Hartsfield-Jackson’s new $1.4 billion international terminal signalled the completion of its old master plan. People cheered, others laughed and some even cried. Days later it was working on a new blueprint for the future.

This is the reality of life at the world’s busiest airport, and aviation general manager, Louis Miller, wouldn’t have it any other way.

Miller, who joined the gateway two years ago after spending 14 years in the hot seat at Tampa International Airport, admits that the chance to run Hartsfield-Jackson was just too good an opportunity to turn down.

“I wanted a new challenge after accomplishing all I had set out to do in Tampa, and the challenges and opportunities don’t come much bigger and better than at the world’s busiest airport,” he enthuses.

“The biggest challenge here is coping with growth. Traffic will continue to grow and we must be capable of meeting demand.”

 Miller points out that passenger traffic at Hartsfield-Jackson is “growing faster than the North American average, which is no mean feat during these tough economic times”.

Indeed, last year was the airport’s busiest ever when a record 92.4 million passengers passed through its facilities – a year-on-year rise of 3.7% and 2.6% more than its previous best of 90 million, set back in 2008.

And the gateway has enjoyed a good first six months of 2012, with passenger traffic up 4.5%, although the down-to-earth Miller believes that the current levels of growth cannot be sustained and that the airport is likely to end the year with growth of around 2%.

“If we can average around 2% annual growth rate for the next few years we will be very happy,” says Miller, who attributes the upturn in traffic to an improving US economy, the entrance of Southwest Airlines to the market following its purchase of AirTran, and the airport’s own marketing efforts to attract new airlines or convince those already serving Atlanta to up frequencies.

New terminal

The gateway’s newly opened Maynard H Jackson Jr International Terminal will certainly help Miller in his mission to ensure that the airport is equipped to meet future demand.

For the 1.2 million square-foot terminal and its 12-gate Concourse F connects with the 28-gate Concourse E to effectively create a 40-gate international complex that Delta CEO, Richard Anderson, has already labelled Atlanta’s “new front door to the world”. The airport desperately needed the facility because although Hartsfield-Jackson is primarily a domestic gateway, with 90% of its passengers travelling on flights within the US, international traffic is on the rise.

So much so, in fact, that a record 9.9 million international passengers (+2%) passed through the gateway last year, and Miller admits that the facility was needed to raise service standards and ease peak time congestion in Concourse E, which sometimes forced the airport to handle international flights in the domestic concourses.

And with the FAA predicting that demand for international passengers could rise 30% to top 13 million by as early as 2015, Miller says that the terminal’s opening could not have been better timed.

“There is no disputing the fact that the biggest reason we needed the new terminal was to handle the growth in international traffic, which now accounts for just over 10% of our passengers,” says Miller.

“International passenger numbers are, in fact, growing faster than domestic passengers and we expect that trend to continue, so a new terminal with new and improved facilities was an absolute necessity.

“Its opening is huge for Atlanta. It gives international passengers their own terminal with its own entrance, it ends the baggage re-check process for Atlanta-bound passengers and it enhances the airport’s overall capacity now and for the future.”

He puts the growth figures in perspective by reminding us that the airport was handling just over three million international passengers annually when Concourse E opened in 1994.

Back then, Miller adds, Hartsfield-Jackson served just 19 international destinations non-stop, which is in marked contrast to the 60 it does today.

He is also confident that the new, more “customer-friendly” terminal will make a significant difference to international passengers’ perceptions of the airport, which, in addition to its welcoming brand new facilities, theoretically, should make the airport quicker and easier to use.

After all, it boasts an assortment of common-use and self-service technologies, while a new US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility in Concourse F will reduce demand on the one in Concourse E.

The terminal also has its own dedicated parking facilities – a 1,200 space parking garage and a park-and-ride facility – as well as a healthy mix of more than 30 retail and F&B outlets courtesy of concessionaire HMSHost.

They include a number of Atlanta and Georgia offerings such as  The Varsity, The Pecan and Sweet Auburn Market Café that are designed to help create a ‘sense of place’.

Other ‘sense of place’ facilities across the airport include The Real Chow Baby, The Atlanta ChopHouse and an Atlanta Hawks bar (named after the city’s basketball team).

Miller is honest enough to say that getting the concession offering right was “very important” due to the high commercial revenue earning potential of the terminal where many passengers, particularly those in transit, typically spend a few hours.

Their addition takes the total number of shops and F&B outlets to more than 125 across the entire airport.

“The terminal will have a big impact on customer service levels,” assures Miller. “People will like its openness, facilities and convenience, particularly for those arriving passengers with Atlanta as an end destination, as they can now walk straight out of the front door of the facility after clearing CBP instead of having to have their bags re-checked [security screened] by the TSA and exiting through the domestic terminal.

“This can save them anything from 45 minutes to one hour, and the difference this can make to customer satisfaction levels, and in fact, has already made in the few months since the terminal opened, cannot be underestimated.”

The new terminal’s opening has also significantly increased the capacity of the airport’s Plane Train automated people mover (APM) system by reducing demand from international passengers.

Business strategy

In line with the airport’s business strategy of outsourcing facilities and services to third parties, the Maynard H Jackson Jr International Terminal is managed by TBI Airport Management, Inc on behalf of concessionaire Atlanta Airlines Terminal Corporation (AATC).

TBI also holds the management contract for the US gateway’s Concourse E, and manages all common use facilities and equipment at Hartsfield-Jackson.

They include the 40-gate International Terminal Complex (including the Concourse F Ramp Tower), the Airport-Wide MUFID System, the Concourse C Ramp Control Tower, domestic common use gates, check-in counters and baggage claim facilities.

Why doesn’t the airport manage the facilities itself? Miller says that the current management system, created over 30 years ago with the formation of AATC works well and there is no need to change it, as it leaves Atlanta’s Department of Aviation free to concentrate on its core business of running Hartsfield-Jackson.

It also means that of the 58,000 staff currently employed at the airport, only 1,000 work for the Department of Aviation – the bulk of them as  police, fire fighters and airfield maintenance crews – so the citizens of  Atlanta don’t have to worry about a staff-heavy organisation and high  wage bills.

Established by a Delta-led group of airlines in 1979, AATC has full responsibility for all services including heating, air conditioning, housekeeping, building maintenance, lost and found, elevator and escalator maintenance.

It also operates and maintains two mechanical plants, which provide hot and chilled water to both passengers and employees.

Future expansion

The opening of the Maynard H Jackson Jr International Terminal means  that the Atlanta gateway now has dedicated international and domestic terminals and seven concourses (T,A,B,C,D,E F), which between  them boast a total of 210 gates currently handling more than  1,000 daily departures.

Atlanta’s underground Plane Train APM system provides rapid connection times between the facilities.

However, with traffic expected to rise in the years ahead, albeit at a more modest level than in the past, Miller and the City of Atlanta know that new facilities will be needed in the future to ensure that the gateway is capable of meeting long-term demand.

In terms of the future development of Hartsfield-Jackson, Miller says that the airport is currently working on a new master plan – in conjunction with Ricondo & Associates – for the next five, 10 and 20 year periods.

Set to be unveiled in late 2013, it will be Atlanta’s first new master plan since 1999, and as such Miller is refusing to rule anything in or out.

New concourses are likely to be on the agenda, but with five runways already, Miller says that the airport is unlikely to require additional runways for the foreseeable future.

“We have adequate airfield capacity, and are actually handling more passengers with less flights today than we did a few years ago, as airlines have replaced smaller jets with larger ones,” states Miller. “This is a good thing for us as a small jet with 50 passengers takes as much runway time as a bigger aircraft with 250 people onboard.”

The airport currently handles around 2,500 flights daily and in excess of 950,000 aircraft movements yearly.

“The new master plan will define our future, so it is imperative that we get it right over the next 16 to 18 months, especially as with only 4,700 acres of property, Hartsfield-Jackson is quite size constrained in comparison to other large airports,” reveals Miller.

Miller cites DFW’s 16,000 acres and Denver’s 25,000 acres as the land riches available to some US gateways, but emphasises that Hartsfield-Jackson “still has a lot of potential” to develop its site because of the way the existing terminals and airfield have been laid out.

The City of Atlanta’s desire for Hartsfield-Jackson to be run as a commercially successful business in its own right means that the gateway is solely responsible for funding all future infrastructure development.

Miller, however, doesn’t see this as a problem. “We are a major  economic generator for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, generating over  $415 million per year in revenues,” he says. “We are totally self-sustaining, don’t use any outside tax dollars at all, and have no problem in paying our own way.

“The community is not contributing to the cost of operating and developing the airport, but they are benefiting from what the airport provides them.”

Indeed, the airport funded the entire cost of the new international terminal through a combination of Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) revenue, bond issue and profits – although the airlines will eventually pay for about 50% of it through airport fees and charges.

Customer service

Miller says that Hartsfield-Jackson’s rising Airport Service Quality (ASQ) customer satisfaction scores, and recent efficiency excellence award from the Air Transport Research Society (ATRS), provides evidence of his gateway’s customer service commitment.

An example of this commitment, he says, is the use of dedicated ‘customer care representatives’ in the terminal that are 100% focused on helping passengers.

The role of the ‘teal green’ clad helpers, many of whom are bilingual, typically involves everything from assisting with directions and finding lost items and people to managing security lines.

In fact, the Atlanta Department of Aviation places such high importance on customer service that it provides customer service training to all airport staff. TSA security guards, shop workers and airline personnel being just some of the 5,000 employees to attend training courses last year.

“It’s another way of getting the message across that customers are our number one priority, the fact that they should be treated with dignity and respect and that airport staff should do all that they can to ensure that the Atlanta travel experience is an easy, safe and enjoyable one for our passengers,” says Miller.

Miller believes that communication is the key when it comes to customer service and being a good neighbour, and appears to practice what he preaches because he speaks to the local community at least three or four times a month at meetings designed to update them on the latest developments at the world’s busiest airport.

Elected officials of Hartsfield-Jackson’s surrounding communities – four cities and three counties – are also members of a Community Review Committee that meets regularly and will be consulted fully on the airport’s master plan as it is being drafted.

And Hartsfield-Jackson is actively working to build up its presence  on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and  Pinterest as a means of communicating and interacting with the  outside world.

As a result, the airport uses social media for everything from customer service to media relations and crisis management, and its efforts appear to be being heard and seen, as it now has more than 8,700 followers on  both Twitter and Facebook and its YouTube channel has close to  one million views.

Public relations manager, Albert Snedeker, told Airport World: “We are very active on social media, which we use primarily for listening and communication. Knowing what people are talking about and what their interests are makes it easier for us to keep our finger on the pulse of what our passengers want.”

Hartsfield-Jackson’s communication skills even extend to daily contact with the local TV channels to inform them of the average wait times at the airport’s security checkpoints.

Traffic and route development

Airlines serving Hartsfield-Jackson currently operate non-stop flights to  158 domestic and 60 international destinations from Atlanta.

Home carrier, Delta Air Lines, is by far and away the biggest operator  at the airport, accounting for 70% of all passengers handled at the  Georgia gateway.

Southwest, a comparatively recent entrant to the market following its purchase of AirTran Airways, is the second biggest operator at Hartsfield-Jackson handling around 15% of its passengers.

Other major carriers serving Atlanta include American Airlines, United Airlines, Frontier Airlines and US Airways, which between them and Delta,  help ensure that New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are the airport’s most popular routes.

An incredible 70% of the passengers handled at Hartsfield-Jackson  are connecting passengers, including the bulk of international passengers who board flights for destinations elsewhere across the US and Canada.

In terms of international traffic growth, Miller says passenger numbers are on the rise from Europe, Latin America and Asia-Pacific.

Delta’s SkyTeam partners Air France, KLM, Korean Air and Aeroméxico – which launched services on June 29 – all serve the airport, as do international carriers British Airways and Lufthansa.

He puts the rise in international traffic down to a whole host of factors  that include a weak US dollar and the marketing efforts of his air service development team.

However, with 80% of the US population living within a two hour flight of Hartsfield-Jackson, it would be wrong to assume that the airport had forgotten about the importance of the domestic market when it comes to route development.

“We have a service development team that does little else other than go out to the airlines and try and get additional passenger and cargo air services. We are not slot constrained like other airports and are actively looking for new domestic and international routes,” says Miller.

“Are we too dependent on Delta? Well, there is no denying that we  are very dependent on Delta as it has its headquarters here and  employs 29,000 people in the Atlanta metropolitan area. They are  very important to us, but so are our other airlines, as competition helps  make us competitive.

“This is why we are delighted to have got Southwest and will continue to look for new airlines and routes in order to be a fair and balanced and competitive airport for the local community.”

Top spot and economic impact

How long can Atlanta hold on to its status as the world’s busiest gateway in the face of growing competition from China – not least from Beijing Capital International Airport, which handled 77.4 million passengers (+4.7%) in 2011, and is fast closing the gap?

“We’re going to continue to grow, but we cannot grow as fast as the airports in some Asian countries, so realistically, I think we can only hold on to the top spot for another four or five years,” muses Miller, noting that the airport will enjoy the accolade while it lasts.

The last study into the economic power of Hartsfield-Jackson in  2010 found that the airport had a direct regional impact of $32.6 billion and was responsible for 58,000 jobs on-site and indirectly, hundreds  of thousands more off it.

Another study is due to take place next year when Miller expects the airport’s impact to be even greater, not least because of the extra 2,000 jobs created by the opening of the international terminal.

Car parking, car rental and retail and F&B sales in the terminal are the airport’s biggest source of non-aeronautical revenue, which presently account for 60% of the airport’s income.

“This airport is of vital importance to Atlanta, the surrounding region and the state of Georgia, and I think people recognise this fact, are supportive of the airport and will back our future development plans,”  says Miller. Here’s hoping Louis, here’s hoping.

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