Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Airport That Ate Atlanta

Photo courtesy of Craig Butz

Have you ever been through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL)? If you’ve ever boarded a plane, the answer is almost certainly yes, accompanied by an audible groan. In fact, it’s a common saying in Georgia that when you die, you can’t get to heaven, or hell, without making a connection there. What began as a small airfield of 287 acres on the site of an abandoned racetrack is now 4700 acres and still growing, rather like its cumbersome name. Parts of the neighboring communities of Hapeville and College Park now lie under its runways, while some neighborhoods are devoid of homes thanks to noise mitigation measures.

Just this month, a $1.4 billion international terminal expansion opened.  It’s the third international concourse to be built here: the first one, built in 1980, now houses Concourse T; the second was Concourse E, built for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Presumably, in 16 years, they’ll build another one.

On the international terminal’s opening day, the Georgia DOT unveiled signs on the surrounding expressways alerting unwary travelers to the fact that if they wanted to fly internationally, they had to take an entirely different interstate, I-75, to get to the correct terminal. I-85, which had been the main access route for decades, was relegated to the domestic terminal’s driveway.  This airport now had entrances near two entirely different cities, College Park and Mountain View, and those entrances were over two miles apart.
That’s one big airport, but is it too big? Sure, it can handle nearly 1 million flights per year, but does that make it convenient? In a word, no.

Compare the time it takes to get from an entry point to the departure gate at ATL versus a smaller airport like Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), another strong contender for the title of most cumbersome airport name. I have personally tested this (unwillingly) and found that it can take an hour to get from the rental car center to my departure gate at ATL. The journey requires getting on not one, but TWO people movers. At DCA, the same sort of trip takes about 30 minutes to complete. It only requires the use of an elevator and moving sidewalk. If you were flying to a city like Charlotte, which nearly midway between ATL and DCA and a short flight from both, which airport would you prefer to use?

What allows DCA to keep its small size and not be expanded to the same size as the urban core it serves? It isn’t a distance issue brought on by the perimeter rule, which restricts most flights to 1250 miles. Nor for that matter is it the lack of numerous international flights. Most passengers fly domestically.  It’s the lack of multiple, lengthy runways.  That puts a capacity cap on flights, which inevitably opens up space for competition to short-haul destinations. That competition doesn’t come from Dulles Airport, located far out in the western suburbs, nor does it come from the distant Baltimore/Washington International  Thurgood Marshall Airport (What is it with these cumbersome airport names?). It comes from rail, namely Amtrak.
Yes, poor under-appreciated Amtrak competes with airlines serving DCA and has captured over 50% of the market for travel to destinations like New York City. A traveler can board an Acela Express in Washington’s Union Station and reach New York’s Penn Station in less than 3 hours.  Compare that to a shuttle flight from DCA to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, and remember to factor in the time to get to the airport and through security, the hour-long flight, and the taxi ride from LaGuardia into Manhattan

So, what should a thriving city do? Build an airport that’s actually bigger than its central core, as Atlanta did, or keep the airport at a manageable size (for humans, at least) and create rail options for short distance travel, as in Washington? If you’re dragging a heavy suitcase, you will probably prefer the latter.

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