World’s busiest airport eases off the “b” word

4:00 a.m. Thursday, March 10, 2016 Business

Marketing folks at Atlanta’s airport recently concluded the obvious: Travelers don’t love the “b” word.

For years, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious International Airport boasted that in addition to having an exceptionally long name, it is “the world’s busiest airport.” Or as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said: “the busiest airport on Planet Earth.”

But nearly 20 years into the bragging, Hartsfield-Jackson is ratcheting back that particular tag line, at least where consumers are likely to hear or see it.

“Busiest” conjures up images of crowded malls, traffic-jammed interstates and flamboyant silk shirts from the 1970s.

Not so pleasant, right?

“Who wants to be on the world’s busiest highway?” said Vivica Brown, Hartsfield-Jackson’s assistant general manager for its commercial division.

Why did it take so long to come to this epiphany? Heck, the thesaurus shows synonyms for busy include overloaded, buried and swamped.

Brown told me Hartsfield-Jackson traditionally marketed to companies – businesses that could bring more flights or cargo to the airport. For them, busy apparently is a good thing when it’s a sign of efficiency and popularity.

“We are now trying to take a more passenger focus” in addition to that past emphasis, Brown said.

They’ve hired five new branding people from places like Cartoon Network and CNN.

Altering the tagline — which will show up in press releases, executive speeches and some marketing material — isn’t likely to have much impact on travelers.

But I still think we should have fun with it. Because I like thinking about how businesses (or airports, in this case) try to shape our views.

Plus, it would have been immensely annoying to hear Hartsfield-Jackson continuing to crow with delight about how super-busy it is, while it also warns about the likelihood of super-long security lines this summer. (Brown told me the timing of the marketing change has nothing to do with concerns about TSA delays.)

Hartsfield-Jackson’s marketing folks brainstormed new brag lines, but they didn’t formally test them or the old one with consumers. They considered the world’s “most-visited” airport, but settled on a line Brown calls “fabulous”: “the world’s most-traveled airport.”

Huh? I told travelers about it. Some cocked their head like they weren’t sure what to make of the phrase.

Two images come to mind when I hear “most traveled.” One is of a rutted, overused road.

The other is of travelers schlepping their carry-on bags down endless concourses and onto the airport’s underground trains, traveling more inside Hartsfield-Jackson than at any other airport in the world.

(Hartsfield-Jackson has other marketing issues. Last year, the Atlanta City Council asked officials at the city-owned airport to get people to use the airport’s full name. The only way I can see that working is if you actually pay people to use all five words instead of one.)

As for the “busiest” issue, I thought, there must be other options.

How about another euphemism for busy, like “the world’s most-active airport.” Doesn’t that make you feel fit and healthy?

I asked travelers at Hartsfield-Jackson to write down one word they think of to describe the airport. Some were hopeful. “Promising,” said a college student from Maryland. Some were complimentary. “Friendliest,” said an older gentleman in a cowboy hat who told me he was an ambulance chasing lawyer from Texas.

The people I spoke with who traveled the most tended to have the most negative assessments. A Delta flight attendant based in the Northeast told me she couldn’t think of a word or phrase for Hartsfield-Jackson that didn’t include cussing.

Susan Legates, an East Cobb resident who flies out of Hartsfield-Jackson every week for business, said the airport is a “zoo on Mondays” and TSA lines have grown massive.

She says she tolerates it because, well, what other option does she have in Atlanta?

“You have no choice if you want to fly. You have to come through this airport,” she said.

All our eggs are in one basket. Delta dominates Hartsfield-Jackson even more than it did in past years. Atlanta stuffs everything into its one big commercial airport, despite the faltering idea of a second option in Paulding County.

But Atlanta has reason to brag about Hartsfield-Jackson. It is why Atlanta is Atlanta and not, as I think the saying goes, Birmingham.

When I ask tech entrepreneurs, national salespeople or big company CEOs why they’re based in Georgia, they always, always cite Atlanta’s airport as a big draw.

Hartsfield-Jackson, with all those gazillions of flights and connections, makes Atlanta bigger than it really is.

The record 101.5 million passengers the airport shuffled through last year is 12 times higher than the population of New York City, the capital of busy.

But the airport’s hold on the “busiest” title is tenuous. Hartsfield-Jackson soon might be out-busied by Beijing or Dubai. (In 2014, Chicago’s O’Hare International was tops in the number of flights but not in passengers.)

Of course, Hartsfield-Jackson isn’t easing back. Officials are now launching massive construction plans.

The projects could jostle Atlanta travelers for years, disrupting some of the airport’s flow as we walk around the work.

On the bright side, all the extra walking ought to prove the claim of “most-traveled,” even if that’s not what Hartsfield-Jackson meant.

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