Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is increasingly becoming a major gateway for passengers boarding flights for other countries, according to numbers reported Thursday by the federal government.
Atlanta's airport had one of the fastest rates of international passenger growth in the nation for the first six months of this year, according to numbers compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
The numbers show international traffic at Hartsfield-Jackson jumped 12.5 percent over the same six-month period the year before.
The new figures come as the city gets ready to unveil plans for a new billion-dollar international terminal --- scheduled for a 2011 opening --- and on the heels of this month's arrival of new Delta Air Lines CEO Richard H. Anderson, who has touted international flights as the Atlanta-based carrier's route to prosperity. Delta uses Hartsfield-Jackson as its main hub and accounts for more than 70 percent of its flights.
"Atlanta is the international heart of Delta, and it will continue to be," Delta spokesman Kent Landers said. "We look forward to the construction of a new international terminal that will allow us to expand on the 63 international markets we've added to Atlanta in the last decade."
Delta only had 17 international destinations from Hartsfield-Jackson when the 1996 Olympics came to town --- it now has 80 to five continents. From all of its U.S. hubs, Delta serves 109 international destinations, Landers said.
More than 1.96 million passengers boarded international flights at Hartsfield-Jackson from January through June of this year, ranking it No. 2 in the nation behind Miami for the total number of "international enplanements," according to the DOT. About 2.3 million international passengers boarded flights in Miami, which saw a 5.6 percent increase in international passengers.
Only Los Angeles International Airport, which ranks eight nationally in the total number of international passengers served, had a stronger growth rate than Hartsfield-Jackson. The Los Angeles airport saw international passenger growth surge by 13.9 percent to 906,000.
Hartsfield-Jackson already is ranked as the No. 1 airport in the world for total passengers --- estimated to be 86 million this year --- and has been steadily adding to its international total as Delta has begun to aggressively add new international flights.
"International is clearly the future of Delta," Landers said.
The airline, which emerged from bankruptcy earlier this year, has added about 30 international routes from Hartsfield-Jackson since 2005. Delta is now trying to secure two routes to China, one of which would begin next year.
The increase in the number of international flights this summer from Hartsfield-Jackson at times overwhelmed gate capacity at the current international terminal, which was constructed for the '96 Olympics.
Landers said "a handful" of departing Delta international flights had to use gates on Concourse T during busy afternoons during the peak of the summer travel season.
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The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics also said Atlanta Hartsfield remains the nation's busiest airport by a comfortable margin over No. 2 Chicago O'Hare.