Airport flight plan: New parking decks, another runway

Travelers at the world’s busiest airport are likely to see new parking garages and renovated terminals over the next decade, and possibly a sixth runway and more concourses after that, according to a new master plan.

The plan is a blueprint for growth through 2031 and includes a raft of major projects aimed at keeping Hartsfield-Jackson International big enough and modern enough to maintain its role as a massive economic driver for metro Atlanta and the Southeast.

Master plans are not binding and some elements, such as another runway or more concourses, depend on how passenger growth plays out in coming years. But most big-ticket items in Hartsfield-Jackson’s last master plan — a fifth runway, separate international terminal and new rental car complex — got built.

The billions of dollars needed to fund the new master plan would come from the airport itself: passenger facility charges, airline lease and landing fee payments, revenue from concessions and parking, as well as federal grants. The revenue streams are often used to back bonds or other construction financing.

Some projects would affect businesses and homeowners around the airport and will likely generate discussion and debate in coming months and years.

The full plan would involve relocating numerous facilities, including Delta’s cargo operation, hotels and other businesses in College Park near the southwest corner of the airport, some park-ride parking spaces, and ground transportation waiting areas.

Airport officials discussed their draft master plan at an Atlanta city council transportation committee meeting last week, adding they will continue work on it in coming months. That will include more detailed analysis and a public meeting to be held Sept. 18.

“This is still a work in progress,” said Hartsfield-Jackson planning director Tom Nissalke.

The city of Atlanta owns Hartsfield-Jackson, but the airport funds its own operations and there are federal restrictions from using airport revenue for non-airport uses.

One of the more urgent projects is to tear down and expand the domestic terminal’s parking garages. The airport plans to replace both the North and South four-story parking decks with garages twice as large, with eight or nine levels.

Work is expected to start in 2017, cost $550 million to $750 million in 2014 dollars and take several years .

Another near-term project is the construction of an “end-around” taxiway on the south side of the airport that will reduce delays and improve safety by easing aircraft movements around the airfield.

Also in the plans are additional cargo facilities on the south side of the airport. That will require the demolition of an old Northwest Airlines hangar, now called the City South hangar.

The biggest projects — the addition of Concourses G, H and I and a sixth runway — depend on how fast passenger traffic grows.

The airport’s last master plan envisioned a separate new terminal/gate complex south of the main terminal, but the new one drops that idea in favor of new concourses to the east of the existing ones. That maintains the airport’s efficient design and enables easier connection to the Plane Train, airport managers said.

The plan foresees converting international Concourse E to domestic use, while using Concourses F, G, H and I for international travelers. Plans are for another nine gates by 2021, and 33 gates by 2031. But sluggish passenger traffic growth could slow those plans.

Building a sixth runway has become less urgent as the number of flights taking off and landing at Hartsfield-Jackson has declined in recent years, due first to the economy and Delta ‘s shift to larger planes, and more recently to Southwest Airlines’ downsizing of AirTran operations since their merger.

Airport officials want to eventually build a sixth runway on the existing airfield, rather than having to expand the airport footprint to the north or south where businesses and residents would be displaced.

“It would be less controversial,” said airport manager Miguel Southwell, adding that it may be “just the path of least resistance.”

The master plan sets aside space just north of the fifth runway for a new 7,888-foot runway expected to cost more than $1 billion. But such a runway would be closely spaced between other runways, which might mean some restrictions on its use.

The airport plans to revisit the issue when the number of flights reaches 925,000 annually, up from 866,000 today. At that point, it would determine if the runway must be built in a different location.

The sixth runway would require older hotels near the southwest corner of the airport to close or move, and College Park is in talks with the airport on potential commercial development in other areas, College Park city manager Terrence Moore said.

“A lot of legwork, a lot of logistics need to be squared away,” he said.

Moore also acknowledged that airport noise is “always a concern… That is something we will likely have to offer leadership and discussion to ensure that residents’ concerns will be addressed.”

Hartsfield-Jackson in 2011 hired consulting firm Ricondo & Associates, of Chicago, to conduct the work for the plan. It was expected to take 18 months to complete, but was delayed.

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