Opinion - Atlanta's new gateway

The airport's international terminal is likely to become the newest image-booster for the city

Visually speaking, Atlanta's new international terminal kicks ass.

Yes, we've long had the world's busiest airport and one of the biggest in the U.S., but, sandwiched between two unlovely parking decks, Hartsfield-Jackson's main terminal has never had the curb appeal of a Dulles or a Denver International.

The new terminal changes all that. If the old main terminal had all of the aesthetics of a suburban mall, Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal is more like Rodeo Drive — clean, open, and immediately impressive enough to convince you that you've arrived somewhere special. (BTW, what's up with all the middle initials in stuff named after people? Was there a concern someone might be confused as to which Maynard Jackson was being honored?)

While the building itself doesn't represent a huge departure from contemporary industrial design — its exterior arguably echoes that of Philips Arena — a drive up the elevated roadway leading to the terminal delivers a wow factor hitherto unfelt at Hartsfield. As you start up the ramp to arrivals, the air traffic control tower, the nation's tallest at 400 feet, looms over the new terminal's north end. When you reach the top of the ramp, the landscape spreads out below you on the right and the terminal itself curves around to your left, a cascade of blueish glass and shiny metal.

OK, I've rhapsodized enough about the building's appearance. What you want to know is, was it worth spending $1.5 billion to add 12 international gates to an airport that already had 182 busy gates? (Especially considering the original estimate was $688 million, before the designers sued the city, and the city sued the designers, and the cost eventually more than doubled. And that final bill didn't include direct MARTA access at the terminal, which was deemed too expensive.) Unfortunately, that's a question only an accountant can answer, and then probably only with several years' hindsight as to whether the world's busiest airport has met passenger growth projections. Certainly, Delta, Hartsfield's biggest customer, was pushing for the addition of what will be known as Concourse F, but we'll have to wait to see whether the numbers pan out.

Even if they eventually fall short, it's hard to criticize the decade-old decision to add the terminal — it's a relative bargain compared to the near-billion-dollar cost of replacing the city's football stadium. For starters, much like the proposed Falcons arena, the cost of the new international terminal and gates will be borne by a special tax — in this case a ticket surcharge. So, if you don't fly, you don't pay.

The new terminal is officially being touted as Atlanta's new front door. And so it is. After it opens May 16, all international arrivals will come through the new terminal. Instead of taking an interminable train ride into the scrum of Hartsfield's two-sided main terminal, visitors will simply pass through art-lined hallways to come upstairs to collect their bags. (Although there's also a new customs and immigration area, airport officials have precious little control over that hellish process.)

When those visitors leave, they'll check in for their flights alongside a wall of windows through which they can watch planes taking off and landing, another marked improvement over the old terminal. (Speaking of which, the design of the new terminal separates arriving and departing traffic and boasts an elevated walkway from the parking deck, meaning drivers won't need to stop for suitcase-lugging pedestrians anymore.)

From the airy, light-filled check-in area, visitors will pass through security into a series of similarly light-filled atriums — the architecture makes much use of skylights, windows, and soaring ceilings — with a mezzanine lined with restaurants, shops, and seating. Other design features include floors of granite sourced from the world's quarries, an enormous chandelier, and an equally large array of glass discs suspended from the ceiling programmed to light up and change color in coordination with plane departures.

"We're trying to give the passenger a grand experience," explains Tad Kaczor, a consultant who helped design what he calls the "intuitive directional" flow of the interior spaces that helps channel travelers through the atrium to their gate. The airport also has expanded greatly upon what now has got to be the world's chintziest duty-free shopping.

If all this sounds unnecessarily lavish, consider the new international terminal in the same way you think of Turner Field or the Centennial Park fountains. That is, as public amenities that have become postcard-worthy emblems that define Atlanta as a destination. Even if you never fly any farther than Las Vegas, the Maynard will benefit you by helping the Atlanta brand.

By providing the rest of the world a striking and memorable portal to the city — one that may soon rank up with the iconic view of the city skyline from the Downtown Connector, but with less traffic — the new terminal can't help but enhance our image in the eyes of visitors and give locals more bragging rights. Not having invested in the terminal would've put Atlanta at risk of falling behind, losing international routes to other airports, and being considered second-rate.


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