Modernizing Atlanta’s International Airport

By Pat Askew

It is an underappreciated fact that much of the United States’ aviation infrastructure was built during either the first golden generation of aviation travel or during the era of hubbing and deregulation that followed. The concourses at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), constructed in the early 1980s, were a product of the latter time frame.

The focus of the period was on efficient aircraft movement, with the maximum number of airplanes served per square foot of passenger facilities. The demands for airport terminals were simple: a place to sit down before boarding and convenient restrooms. Concourses built since have outgrown this paradigm.

In 2017, travel on U.S. carriers will exceed 825 million passengers. Now that the experience of plane travel isn’t as rare or revered, those millions of passengers have come to expect more from the buildings that connect them to airplanes. Concourses have retail outlets, food and beverage offerings, wireless connectivity, seating variety and power outlets. In parallel, the physical experience on the ground is taking on greater and greater importance to the public.

The challenge for an existing airport like ATL, is responding to this demand within an established footprint that has remained unchanged since 1980. These footprints are determined and constrained by expensive and inflexible airplanes parked along the perimeter. Regardless of any changes to the elements within, the concourse hold rooms are of the same basic design, with just as much square footage as when they were built. In the case of ATL, the concourse is also insular, with minimal natural light or connection to the outside world, as dictated by the economics of the initial construction.

The ATL Airside Modernization Program tackles this challenge by altering the physical model to the greatest extent possible. Doing so within the constraint of an operational airport environment, with minimal disruption to passengers and operations, was part of the equation for success. Doing it so passengers could appreciate the process was an added goal.

When you can’t see out, strip away the barriers.

At ATL, the exterior was largely composed of opaque, metal panels. The excitement of an active airfield, with the bustle of airplanes, service trucks and ramp workers, was often hidden. A visual connection to natural environment and the region, was missing.

The solution was to replace the metal panels with an exterior wall of full height windows, connecting waiting passengers to the active world outside. The psychological benefits of natural light have been well documented and the building also becomes more energy efficient by reducing the level of artificial lighting required during the day.

When you can’t go out, go up.

Limited to the existing footprint, the design team took the only other approach available: go vertical. Ripping away the low, flat ceiling of the entire concourse, it was revealed that the structure would allow the height of the hold rooms to be increased by four feet at the exterior wall. The entire hold room is now flooded with natural daylight from the new windows, creating a well-proportioned space with a visual connection to the airfield and the region. Today, ATL’s passengers enjoy the view, work comfortably and read under natural daylight, without the glare of artificial lighting.

To emphasize the progression from interior to exterior, the team sloped the new ceiling panels up from the central section of the concourse to the top of the new window wall. Panels, light in color, bring natural daylight deeper into the interior and include energy efficient, LED lighting. A crystal-clear PA system and new HVAC connections for unobtrusive climate control were also installed. All these features contribute to an improved experience where passengers spend the most time.

Working with the major airline tenant, Delta Airlines, the hold room’s design was coordinated with their initiative to revamp the boarding process. With no way to increase the floor area, the initiative takes the approach of reducing fixed elements within the space. Their test program replaces typical gate counters with small footprint podiums, supported by roving agents using handheld devices to assist passengers in making seat changes, checking bag status and providing other personal services. To support the tech-savvy who prefer automated processes, E-gates allow self-scanning of boarding passes from mobile devices.

Slim boarding pillars create parallel boarding lanes, maximizing the available area for seating. Tall work tables with outlets create the boundary of the hold room and the central corridor while providing seating options.

The culmination of these changes is a reimagined hold room that matches traveler’s needs, while responding to current patterns of use. A hospitality based environment is created, with more personal interactions and more options for the time spent waiting to board.

Within the operational needs of ATL, all this work happens after hours, four gates at a time, with no gates going out of service during the project. Temporary partitions, featuring murals of the completed project, are erected for weather protection as exterior wall panels are removed.  Passengers are engaged in the progress of the work, as both the process and the result are made evident.

Pat Askew

Pat Askew is an architect and principal at HKS, a leading global design firm, where he leads the firm’s aviation practice. For airports in cities around the world including San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Dubai, St. Louis, Indianapolis and more, Pat designs terminals and concourses that people enjoy for their clarity, ease and comfort.