The world’s busiest airport wants to set its pay phones free.
Hartsfield-Jackson International officials plan to replace all pay phones with phones that allow free calls, with advertising providing the revenue.
It’s a reflection of changing times: Cell phones have turned pay phones into relics from an earlier age. Many people can’t remember the last time they used one.
But airport managers still wants to make phones available for travelers in a bind: those whose cell phone battery may have run out, who are traveling internationally without cell phone service here, and the few who have no cell phone at all.
To do that, the airport’s roughly 200 pay phones will be replaced by 450 phones that will allow free 5-minute domestic calls. Longer calls and international calls will cost.
The idea is that revenue from advertising on large color video screens on the new phone terminals will cover the cost of the service. The airport gets a cut and figures to make more than its dwindling revenue from pay phones.
Hartsfield-Jackson’s pay phones are among roughly 4,000 remaining throughout Georgia — often at places like truck stops and convenience stores, as well as in public buildings like airports and courthouses.
“Every airport in the country is facing the same thing,” Hartsfield-Jackson chief Louis Miller said. “We used to make a fortune off of pay phones, and now those days are gone. But, you still want to have the phones there for the customer.”
Atlanta is one of the first airports in the nation to try phones with advertising to support calls.
“[The pay phone] is one of those things you think would never go away, but you hardly see them anymore,” said 61-year-old Macon resident James Palmer, who said he sees the value in having phones at the airport. The ad-supported phones, he added, seem like “a fairly innovative way of dealing with that.”
Tucker resident Shayla Tilford, 30, says she has turned to a pay phone when her cellphone died, and remembers when they were more widespread.
“You’d just pick up the phone and dial the number,” Tilford said. “Now you can’t even remember the number.”
The airport is seeking Atlanta city council approval for the move. A vote is expected Monday, following previous committee approval.
If the deal is approved, free phones are expected to be installed over the next month and a half throughout the airport — including in the new international terminal, where there are no pay phones.
In order to replace the pay phones, the airport wants to waive the competitive bidding process and extend an expired contract with KELLEE, its pay phone contractor since 1994, on a month-to-month basis as a test program.
KELLEE is a partner of Rich Media Technologies, which makes the new phone terminals, and is paying for the new phones.
The airport two years ago waived the minimum annual revenue guarantee from pay phone service, due to falling usage. The new minimum will be $13,500 in revenue to the airport annually.
Denver International Airport installed free, ad-supported phone last fall with free domestic and international calls, though the latter are capped at 10 minutes.
But it hasn’t been the smoothest start for the free ad-supported phones. In Denver, ad dollars have been slow to materialize and the companies encountered some technical issues early on.