The world’s busiest airport keeps passengers moving in midst of building boom

A strong team and communication are keys to the success of ATL’s $11 billion expansion program

By Balram “B” Bheodari, Frank Rucker and Thomas Nissalke | Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

Through form and function, the construction of two curbside canopies at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) has become an iconic part of the Atlanta skyline. Completed in 2019, they stretch 865 feet long and 165 feet wide, covering eight lanes of pickup and drop-off traffic, protecting travelers from rain and summer sun. They also change colors for special occasions, lighting the sky in a single shade or an array of hues at once.

At the world’s busiest airport, the canopies symbolize the priorities of an $11 billion capital improvement program called ATLNext. The program focuses on safety, customer service, economic opportunity, sustainability and innovation. Launched in 2015, ATLNext’s goals include:

  • Modernizing existing facilities, some of which are decades old.
  • Meeting new customer expectations for air travel, like local restaurants, workstations for business travelers, immersive art and automated checkpoints.
  • Accommodating growing demand.

It is an ambitious program that has already transformed the airport. With every element completed, ATL takes a step into the future and prepares for the airport’s second century.

In 2019, we reached a historic milestone of serving more than 110 million passengers. Despite a decline over the past few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, travel is rebounding. Projections still put the airport at 120 million passengers within the next decade.

ATL completed nearly $900 million of work from 2020 to 2021. During those years, an accelerated schedule for a security checkpoint expansion and repaving project resulted in both time and cost savings.


Some of the centerpiece projects of the ATLNext program are:

  • Five new gates opened by the end of year
  • Cargo facilities expansion
  • Plane train upgrade
  • Parking decks renewal
  • A hotel and travel center development
  • Concourse D widening
  • Restroom renovation
  • Domestic terminal modernization

This work underscores the enormous economic opportunity provided by ATL. Owned and operated by the City of Atlanta, ATL is the economic engine of the Southeast with an annual impact of $66 billion. That impact is driven in part by more than 63,000 men and women who work onsite. ATLNext strengthens that impact. From its beginning in 2015 through June 2022, approximately $2.3 billion in construction invoicing has been approved.

Our team is devoted to diversity and inclusion and focuses on outreach and contractor engagement. About $660 million of that construction invoicing has gone to minority- and women-owned businesses. The ATLNext team organizes roundtables and daylong events to facilitate networking, collaborating closely with City Hall to ensure databases remain current. The focus is to make sure contractors have a positive experience during every encounter as they conduct business at the Airport.

With five new gates opening on Concourse T later this year, ATL will be poised to strengthen its role as an economic engine by meeting our community’s — and the world’s — growing demand for service from ATL.

But even as we prepare for the future, with construction walls and cranes marking the campus, the airport continues to thrive and win industry awards for efficiency and customer service. ATL is an airport first and a construction site second. The priority is always to safely accommodate existing activity, whether it is passenger movements in the terminal or vehicular movements on the airport’s roadways.

It is not always easy.

With just 4,700 acres, ATL has a very small footprint. The capital program requires the building of complicated infrastructure in a small space while safely serving our customers. To do that, our guiding principle is to plan from the macro to the micro level. That means developing yearly, monthly, weekly and daily plans for efficiently getting passengers from curb to gate and back based on the type of construction activity.

The planning takes a great deal of preparation — and a willingness to adjust plans on the fly as needed. Communication is key, both with travelers and the people who work and do business at the airport. Social media — including a recently launched TikTok account — TV, newspaper, radio, the airport’s website and public appearances are effective tools to spread the word about what airport users can expect when they arrive at ATL.

When customers enter the airport, they can engage with strategically positioned customer service representatives eager to answer questions and help them navigate the facility. Signage is an important part of helping travelers navigate airports under construction, but the human touch makes an enormous difference. Airport users have come to know that if they see someone wearing a neon green vest at ATL, they can get answers to any question they might have.

In addition to customer service representatives, our entire team embraces its role as the face of the airport and steps up to help customers who need assistance. It is understood that passengers will not remember how clean the construction site was or how beautiful the walls hiding it were, but they will remember if they were inconvenienced. Our goal, always, is to minimize that inconvenience.

Every program aspect of this magnitude — including aiding passenger movement around construction — requires meticulous collaboration across multiple departments, from maintenance to concessions, operations and IT. At ATL, weekly project update meetings are scheduled to keep the lines of communication open across disciplines and promote a synergistic approach to problem-solving.

To track progress, daily, weekly and monthly meetings with different constituencies, including airlines and other tenants, are essential. These meetings foster important two-way communications — to hear concerns and answer questions as well as to share information about the latest construction activities. Delta Air Lines, which comprises nearly 80% of current operations at ATL, is an important partner, and that team helps spread the news of significant impacts to its passengers.

Just as many of the final ATLNext upgrades are innovative, so are some of the construction methods. The canopies are a prime example.

They reflect modular design and construction — 114 components comprising 19 trusses for each of the two canopies. Built in Lubbock, Texas, they were transported 1,143 miles to Georgia, assembled off-site, and installed using highly sophisticated cranes. Logistics required understanding state trucking laws, which in one case prohibited weekend interstate travel of oversized loads.

Recycled construction materials for ATLNext projects keep in line with our commitment to sustainability. All new buildings will have – at least – Silver LEED certification. One project set to open in December is a second end-around taxiway that will expedite landing aircraft to their gate. This adjustment will reduce the airport’s carbon footprint, save airlines fuel and money, improve safety by eliminating interaction with an active runway and improve customer service by reducing the time from the runway to the gate.

One of the most important elements to the success of a project like ATLNext is a sound financial plan, robust enough to weather even a significant storm. The support of our local, state and federal partners remains critical as well as that of our passengers and the communities where they live, work and play.

Having the right people in the right positions with the right skill sets is critical. Strong leadership at all levels of our organization and a team that pulls in the same direction have made ATLNext successful. Functioning under the mission statement, “One team, delivering excellence while connecting our community to the world,” our employees will pilot success for the remainder of this landmark capital program.