Robust Growth: ATL prepares for the future with investments in technology, infrastructure

Feb. 8, 2004


By Jodi Richards, Associate Editor

ATL prepares for the future with investments in technology, infrastructure

Lance Lyttle (left) and Ben DeCosta

ATLANTA - Recently renamed, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport bears the names of two mayors whose support of the airport helped make it the airport it is today, William B. Hartsfield and Maynard Jackson. As the airport undergoes a $5.4 billion capital development
program, including the addition of a fifth runway and a new international terminal, as well as the installation of a wireless infrastructure, the
foundation for a strong future is being established.

It's impossible not to guess that aviation general manager Ben DeCosta is an East Coast native, having worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey previously. No one says "La Guardia" like a New Yorker. However, in the five years he has been with the City of Atlanta he speaks of the airport and the region with the fervor of a hometown guy, actively pursuing the city's goal of keeping ATL at the top of the charts. Serving some 78 million passengers in 2003, DeCosta says ATL has the distinction of busiest airport in the world.

In 1997, ATL, which is owned and governed by the City of Atlanta, began a ten-year, $5.4 billion capital development project which encompasses several major features, including a fifth runway, a new East International Terminal, a consolidated rental car facility, and other terminal and airfield improvements.

Each of these 100-ton trucks (above) and a 5.5-mile system of conveyors are used in the site preparation for runway 10/28.

At an estimated cost of $1.25 billion, the fifth runway is referred to by DeCosta as "the most important runway in America" because of the impact it will have on air transportation. He explains, "In the year 1999 going into 2000, when we were the busiest at 80 million passengers, we were also the busiest in numbers of takeoffs and landings. And it also gave us the dubious distinction of being the most delayed airport in the nation. Those delays here cascaded across the nation's air transportation system. [The fifth runway] will cut those delays in half."

The fifth runway, which will be 9,000 feet long, is located nearly 4,300 feet from the next closest runway and will allow for triple, independent streams of arrival traffic, according to DeCosta.

According to runway director Dwight Pullen with International Aviation Consultants, LLC., the airport invested $300 million in land acquisition for more than 900 acres to accommodate the new runway.

An intricate conveyor system of more than 5.5 miles moves fill from a quarry to the site. The fill is then emptied into enormous trucks called 777s, weighing in at 100 tons each, that were built onsite because of their size, Pullen says. Twenty-one million cubic yards of dirt has been transported by the conveyor and truck system for site preparation of the runway, at an estimated cost of $360 million. Paving of the runway is expected to begin in 2005.

The runway, 10/28, will be built over Atlanta's I-285, which requires the airport to construct an impressive 1,200-foot long bridge, at a cost of $159 million, over the roadway that will support future expansion of the roadway from ten lanes to a possible 18. A separate bridge structure will be built over the Interstate to support the taxiway.

Atlanta is one of few airports that neither halted nor scaled back its capital development program following 9/11. "Hartsfield turned out to be far more resilient than most major large hub airports in the United States," DeCosta explains. "I'm confident our economy has seen the worst, and traffic will be coming back. And while other airports will start or restart their programs, we'll be finished with major portions of ours and be positioned to move to the next step."

The new East International Terminal (EIT), expected to cost some $980 million, will add ten additional gates to the airport and more than one million square feet, according to program element manager Jeff Moak.

Kap Malik, lead project designer, explains that the focus of the building is to create an international gateway to Atlanta. "We want people to be attached to the city as soon as they arrive," he says.

The concessions area is modeled around a marketplace concept, of which the gates wrap around. The design team is incorporating local art, food, and music (complete with a performance stage) into the space.

Says Malik, "We're designing a building that is contextual and that is indigenous. We're designing [the terminal] through materials, through food, through music, and also through colors. Atlanta is known [for] the red clay. We're transforming that into a sandstone wall that runs through the building and becomes the spine. The idea is that Atlanta is a very grounded community. It's grounded and it grew out of the clay, and it got finer and finer as it rose. So as the building gets higher, it gets very refined and becomes metal and glass."

Moak adds that the entire facility will be common use to allow maximum flexibility.

Airport officials speculate that the construction of the EIT will spur growth in the surrounding area, through hotel and other commercial development. "There's 90 acres of assembled land out here that we helped Clayton County to assemble," DeCosta says. "It's formerly noise land and I have given the county development authority an option on that land for development compatible with the expansion of the airport. The airport is the best economic generator of the region, at $18.8 billion annually. And these investments in this capital program will cause even more job generation and more positive economic impact."

ATL is also heavy into improving its technology, namely wireless. "The mission of the airport is to be the world's best airport by exceeding customer expectations," DeCosta says. "So we're continually trying to figure out what customers want and desire and to give it to them. And we think that customers want to be connected to the Internet."

The OC 192 wireless infrastructure, which is on par with major service providers, will not only support voice and data for travelers, but the airport and tenants as well. "The airlines are using wireless technology in order to serve customers," DeCosta says. "We think a wireless environment will allow us to be more efficient, more effective for the future - both in serving the traveling public, and in providing a foundation for the users of the airport and the people who do business to operate effectively."

According to Lance Lyttle, CIO, the three main driving forces behind the wireless project are the passengers, tenants, and the employees of the airport. "Based on that," he says, "we decided that the best thing was for us to have a centrally managed wireless infrastructure throughout the entire airport. However, in order for that to happen, there are certain infrastructure needs to be put in place." The main one is the fiber backbone of the system, which is currently being installed.

The airport has adopted a neutral host business model for the wireless system. Meaning, it will own and operate the infrastructure and allow service providers to provide service to their subscribers.
"For example," Lyttle says, "com-panies such as T-Mobile or Boingo would come in and have an agreement with the airport in order to provide services within the airport. They have their subscribers, and when their subscribers get to the airport, they will log onto our infrastructure and they'll be patched right into [their provider]." The airport will also provide pay-for-use service to travelers who do not have existing accounts with a wireless data provider and don't wish to subscribe.

The East International Terminal is expected to be complete October 2007, at a cost of $982 million.

Lyttle says the airport examined other possible business models in which a third party would manage the wireless infrastructure, or in which there would be one sole service provider. "We decided that would not be in the best interest of us and all the rest of the service providers," he says.

"We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket, unless we own the basket," DeCosta adds.

DeCosta and Lyttle are confident that this business model will work for the airport, and also be a revenue generator. "We think [the infrastructure] will actually save us money in terms of how we operate," DeCosta says. "So there's cost avoidance. And then the tenants will actually pay us to be on the backbone, and we have ways of forcing them on. And then passengers. Having a broadband wireless system will enable us to take advantage of things we can only imagine and envision."

As an example, DeCosta says one day retailers may have the ability to sell products instantly to customers through their advertisements. "You take your PDA out, point it at the ad, download the information, and if you're enabled with your credit card, you could communicate wirelessly and order it and have it shipped home."

Ultimately, all wireless communications, voice and data, will be supported by this infrastructure. Currently, wireless voice service providers pay only for tower rental within the airport. Says DeCosta, "What we want is a piece of the traffic."

An interesting customer service aspect is that travelers with a wireless enabled device within the airport will have access to the airport's website for free, allowing them to quickly find out where the restaurants, nearest bathrooms, etc. are located within the airport.

The airport has budgeted some $10 million for the installation of the fiber backbone, which will support the wireless system as well as other systems including parking revenue control, security access control, and FIDS. Lyttle expects to see a return on that investment within five years.

In-line EDS

Along with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's capital improvement project, comes construction of an in-line baggage screening system.
The $215 million project is expected to begin first quarter 2004. According to aviation general manager Ben DeCosta, an in-line system will be constructed at Concourse E for the arriving international passengers, of whom some 70 percent are connecting. The baggage will be screened before it goes out for domestic connections. Additionally, two roadways will be destroyed in phased construction to allow for the construction of a 70,000-square foot room underneath the roads to house the EDS machines.
Says DeCosta, "Bags will go on raceways into this room, go through the machines, and then back into the terminal for consolidation and then moved out to the aircraft."
The project is estimated to last into 2005, and airport officials are expecting financial assistance from the federal government. Explains DeCosta, "The breakdown of the current legislation is 75-25. We hope that will go to 90-10, but in any event, we're putting up our percentage using PFCs, and the federal percentage comes between AIP, discretionary grants, and an LOI under the memorandum of understanding where the TSA will pay us back their share every year for four years."
The current PFC at ATL is $4.50.