New Atlanta Runway Will Increase Capacity by 30%

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport will open a fifth runway next week, easing congestion and reducing delays at the USA's busiest airport.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the new runway, opening May 27, will increase by about 30% the number of arrivals the airport can handle at any time, reducing passengers' average waits as they taxi or circle in the air.

"It's the most important runway in the U.S. air-traffic control system," says Brian Lentini, FAA's air traffic hub manager for Georgia. "Things in Atlanta have a ripple effect."

Hartsfield, primary hub for Delta Air Lines and for growing discounter AirTran, handles more than 2,500 flights a day. Delays there have long bedeviled connecting passengers.

The new $1.1 billion, 9,000-foot runway should significantly reduce the problem, says Mario Diaz, the airport's deputy general manager.

Currently, the airport operates four east-west runways simultaneously.

Two handle arrivals; two departures. The new runway will parallel the existing runways about eight-tenths of a mile to the south.

With the opening, the new runway and two others mostly will handle arrivals.

The two existing runways closest to the terminal will be used mostly for departures. Hartsfield also recently opened a taller air-control tower to give a better view of the new runway.

Atlanta Hartsfield will join Chicago O'Hare, Denver and Dallas-Fort Worth as the only airports in the USA where three jetliners are able to land safely at the same moment, says Dick Marchi of Airports Council International. It "is a pretty powerful way to increase capacity," he says.

Other airports expect positive ripple effect

The airport's capacity in good weather will rise to about 130 arrivals an hour from 98, the FAA's Lentini says. In bad weather, the capacity will increase to about 100 from 68.

In all, the average per-flight delay will be nearly halved to about eight minutes, the airport says.

The runway will also cut through the nation's air-traffic congestion. About 11% of all U.S. air passengers fly in or out of Hartsfield daily. In 2005, about 85 million people traveled through the airport, the most in the world, according to Airports Council International. Some of the big feeder locations, like New York, Philadelphia and Florida, should benefit, Marchi says.

In March, Hartsfield ranked 20th among U.S. airports in on-time performance, with 78% of its arrivals landing on time, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. But it tops the nation in the total number of minutes delayed.

"In Atlanta, you get a lot of flights delayed by modest amounts" of minutes, Marchi says.

Delta, Hartsfield's largest tenant, anticipates the airport's increased capacity will lead it to improved on-time performance. Joe Kolshak, a Delta operations executive, says the carrier hopes to decrease the number of delayed flights at the airport by 15%.

Frequent travelers to the airport also say they would welcome congestion relief. Al Goldberg, a consultant based in Alpharetta, Ga., says he's been stuck in Newark, N.J., for hours on several trips waiting for weather to improve in Atlanta.

The new runway can move a larger number of planes in or out, particularly when bad weather slows everything down, Goldberg says. "Delays in Atlanta tend to cascade throughout the East Coast."

Taxi time could be lengthy

Some operational issues still need to be worked out at Hartsfield. Because the new runway is set apart from existing runways, arrivals there will taxi up to 15 minutes and cross the two runways to get to the gates.

The arrivals in other runways typically taxi eight to 12 minutes. Hartsfield's Diaz says passengers are better served by a few extra minutes of taxiing on the ground than having their planes circle the air until a runway is clear.

Pilots on arrival flights are also concerned about needing for the next several months in bad weather to "sidestep" -- a maneuver to land on one runway after initially aiming to land on another -- says Larry Newman of the Air Line Pilots Association. Federal rules require flights arriving simultaneously to be separated horizontally by at least 4,300 feet during bad weather if the runways aren't equipped with a precision radar system.

The airport plans to install the system in the new runway early next year.

For now, the horizontal separation between arriving planes is 4,200 feet, or 100 feet short of the federal standard for bad-weather flying.

As a result, controllers may at times have to bump arrivals over to another runway to create the required separation.

Newman says it raises the possibility of some arrivals flying over departing flights.

It's "not something pilots do often," he says.

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