Kempner: Atlanta airport spends jaw-dropping money for fancy umbrella

4:39 p.m Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017 Business
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Passengers aren’t under cover for most of the crossing between parking decks and the domestic terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

The domestic terminal at the world’s busiest airport isn’t exactly a looker from the outside.

Most travelers probably are too focused on making their flights or trying to remember if they brought the travel-size toothpaste to care about street aesthetics outside Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta We-Can’t-Even-Remember-What-It Looks-Like-From-The-Outside International Airport.

Hartsfield and city leaders, though, apparently are convinced that looks matter. Plus they want to keep their customers out of the rain for a few more steps.

Which is why the airport is spending — brace yourself — $265 million on work near the entrances of the airport. The biggest chunk of that — something north of $134 million — is to install soaring canopies between the domestic terminal (North and South sides) and the parking decks, over several lanes of traffic in passenger pickup and drop off areas.

That will keep us snowflakes dry as we cross the lanes, a walk of about 25 seconds (I timed it), a bit of which is already covered on a center island. We’ll also be dry while unloading or picking up passengers curbside.

That’s just good, basic customer service. But do we need to be so extravagant in how we go about providing a fashion statement/mammoth umbrella?

Hartsfield-Jackson happens to have access to a cargo-load of public money that can only be spent on airport projects. I suppose that makes it easier to sink a bunch of it into a fashion statement/mammoth umbrella.

Hey, it’s only money.

Your money. The airport is owned by the city of Atlanta. Among its biggest sources of funding are public parking, concessions, land and building rentals and, the big daddy, ticket fees. That last one, $4.50 for each leg of a flight, generated $201 million for the Atlanta airport in the fiscal year ending in mid 2016.

In a previous column about the airport’s spending I suggested a more human-scale alternative to the planned canopies: “Couldn’t we just hire people with umbrellas to walk visitors across and maybe say welcoming things?”

Or how about just setting up baskets of loaner Hartsfield-branded umbrellas?

Maybe I’m being cheap. So I asked some travelers about their views during a recent rainstorm, which should have been a slam-dunk for canopy love.

“I don’t want to get wet, but I’ll get over it,” a well-dressed woman told me. She travels almost every week and has mapped out her rainy-day route from the parking deck: Go to the deck’s lower level and cross into the domestic terminal building under cover.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is installing canopies between the domestic terminal and parking garages. Later, the airport plans to add pedestrian bridges.

I stopped a couple pushing a baby in a stroller outside.

“Save the money,” the dad, Vaughn Allen of Midtown, told me.

The mom, Katie Allen, said the same. When it comes to airport exteriors, “I don’t care about looks.”

Another passenger, who was carrying an umbrella on her trip just to deal with the Atlanta rain, told me she likes the idea of making the outside of Hartsfield look better and her path less wet. But she said she didn’t know if it would be worth the price.

Larry Hermann, a contractor who lives in Hiram, had not such qualms.

“Keep people comfortable,” he told me. “It’s the busiest airport anywhere. It should bear the expense of a canopy.”

The North canopy is supposed to be in place by May, with the South one following in the Spring of 2019.

Crucially, the project’s price tag doesn’t include planned overhead pedestrian bridges. The raised walkways, which ostensibly will be added later, would avoid the need for pedestrians to cross streets at the main curbside passenger drop-off and pick-up areas. That ought to make things safer for them and smoother for the traffic flow.

The airport couldn’t immediately give me a price tag or timetable for the bridges, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they cost tens of millions of dollars more.

Airport officials already have and are spending a lot to dress up the inside of buildings to improve passenger amenities. They have a $6 billion, 20-year plan for modernization and expansion. 

That includes the new canopies, festooned with lighting that changes colors. They should add pizzazz to a building with concrete-mush looks.

The canopies apparently won’t create a skyline feature visible from miles away. They’ll be the kind of thing you see when you get up close. Connecting travelers — a big chunk of Hartsfield-Jackson’s flyers — probably won’t see it at all.

But Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in speech assured that the addition will “create a dramatic gateway” for us.

In fact, he said that when the work is done, the world’s busiest airport also “is going to be the most attractive.”

That would be nice.

Aaron Betsky, an architecture critic and president of the School of Architecture at Taliesin (formerly the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture), wrote a column about Hartsfield-Jackson a few years back in Architect magazine. He described the airport “the single ugliest, most unpleasant semi-public space I have the forced occasion to use.”

He suggested we tear it down. His biggest criticisms seemed to focus on the airport’s layout, passenger comfort and the Plane Train.

I wondered if the planned canopies might temper his conclusions, at least about the airport’s exterior. I sent him a rendering. He looked at others online.

“I don’t think they look particularly wonderful,” he said, referring to the shaped canopies as “these curvy wurvies.”

He suggested instead a good sign or some kind of facade work coupled with less expansive and more affordable weather protection than the canopy project now underway.

“I’m a little baffled,” he said, “why they would spend that much money on it.”

Find Matt on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/mattkempnercolumnist) and Twitter (@MattKempner) or email him at mkempner@ajc.com.

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