Airport terminal gets push; $110 million OK'd

A new international terminal for Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is still on the drawing boards, but city officials took major steps Wednesday to make sure it's in operation by 2011.

Two committees of the Atlanta City Council approved $110 million in construction funds to build and equip two tunnels that will be used by underground trains to carry passengers back and forth to the facility from the main terminal.

"It looks like we're getting started on the international terminal," said Councilwoman Clair Muller, who chairs the Transportation Committee, after her panel approved the release of $45 million to dig the two tunnels and line them with concrete.

The Finance Committee later in the day approved $65 million for the trains, track and various systems needed to make the people-movers work. Most of the construction funds, which will be voted on by the entire City Council next week, come from passenger fees, federal grants and airline fees.

"We're going forward with the terminal," airport General Manager Ben DeCosta said after the Transportation Committee vote. "This terminal is needed for this airport and the area's future."

Since the 1990s, city officials, airport bigwigs and airline chiefs have talked about a new terminal for Hartsfield-Jackson's fast-growing international passenger load. However, this appears to be the year it actually will begin coming into focus.

DeCosta has said the new Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. International Terminal eventually could cost more than $1 billion, though no official price tag has been placed on the facility.

The airport already has moved about 1.5 million cubic feet of dirt to prepare the site for the facility, which will be located near the new control tower.

However, the future of the facility has been up in the air for about three years. The first terminal design team was fired, and is now suing the city for $60 million. Then, two years ago, Delta Air Lines declared bankruptcy, a move that brought into question the need for a new terminal.

Delta has now emerged from bankruptcy, and a new team should have a "schematic design" for the new facility in two or three months, DeCosta said. Delta, which represents about 80 percent of the business at the world's busiest airport, recently named a new CEO, Richard H. Anderson, who immediately stressed that international flights represent the largest growth opportunity for the airline.

The airline has added 60 international routes systemwide in a year or so. And since 2005, it has added 33 international routes from Hartsfield-Jackson. The airline is trying to secure two China routes, one of which would begin next year.

Delta officials said that two years ago about 20 percent of Delta's total revenues came from international routes. Today, that number is approaching 40 percent.