Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the world’s busiest airport. In fact, it has been ranked the busiest airport in the world since 1998. It serves about 275,000 passengers each day. Daily, there are about 2,700 airplane departures and arrivals. Each month, the airport handles about 54,000 metric tons of cargo and more than 60,000 metric tons of mail. The airport is also the state of Georgia’s largest employer, with a total of 63,000 full- and part-time employees.
The Atlanta, Georgia, airport served around 104 million passengers in 2016. Number two that same year was China’s Beijing Capital International Airport, which served around 94 million passengers. This ranking may seem surprising when you consider that many more people live in Beijing, China. In 2016, it was estimated that 21.7 million people live in Beijing. In comparison, the population of the entire metro Atlanta area is about 5.8 million people. Why is it that Atlanta, which has about 70 percent fewer residents than Beijing, serves 10 million more passengers each year?
What Makes It So Busy?
One reason why Hartsfield-Jackson is so busy is that Atlanta is the home of Delta Air Lines. Delta serves about 160 million passengers a year worldwide. Delta Airlines started in 1924 as a crop-dusting business in Macon, Georgia, called Huff Deland Dusters. In 1928, Collett Everman (C. E.) Woolman, the principal founder of Delta Air Lines, led a group of investors who bought the crop-dusting business. The following year, Delta conducted its first passenger flight, transporting five passengers from Dallas, Texas, to Jackson, Mississippi. It moved its headquarters 85 miles north to Atlanta in 1941.
In 2016, Delta Air Lines had a total revenue of $39.64 billion, second only to the American Airlines Group’s $40.18 billion. Delta served 183.7 million passengers in 2016 alone. According to the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Delta Air Lines was the largest employer in the Atlanta area.
Another factor contributing to Hartsfield-Jackson serving so many people is its location. It is estimated that Atlanta is within a two-hour airplane flight of 80 percent of the U.S. population. Because it is quickly accessible to so many U.S. cities, it is a popular entry point for international travelers to the U.S. Its proximity to major metropolitan areas also makes the airport a popular stopover for planes traveling within the U.S.
Hartsfield-Jackson is Atlanta’s only airport. This is another reason for the airport’s high traffic volume. In comparison, other major U.S. cities like Chicago or New York City split their air traffic among two or more major airports. The nearest major airport to Atlanta is Nashville International Airport in Tennessee, 250 miles to the northwest.
Finally, Atlanta’s airport is also busy because some of the world’s largest companies are headquartered there. Along with Delta, the Coca-Cola Company, Home Depot, and United Parcel Service (UPS) are based in this southern U.S. city. As a result, Atlanta was the seventh most-visited U.S. city for business travelers in 2014.
The Hartsfield-Jackson Airport gets its name from two former mayors of Atlanta. William B. Hartsfield served as Atlanta’s mayor for six terms— longer than any other mayor in that city’s history. Before he became mayor, he served as a city alderman. Alderman Hartsfield founded the airport at the site of an abandoned racetrack and became its first commissioner. The name Jackson was added to the airport in 2003, after the death of former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson. Jackson was the first African American elected to the position of mayor of a major city in the South.
The airport is located 10 miles south of downtown Atlanta, in Clayton County. It is operated by the Department of Aviation of the City of Atlanta. It is very large. It covers 4,700 acres of land, or about 7 square miles. Besides air travel, it provides more than 200 concession outlets, including restaurants and retail stores. Passengers check in for flights and retrieve their luggage in either the airport’s North or South Terminal. Passengers go through a security check in Concourse T. From concourse T, they travel underground to Concourses A through F to board their airplanes. Passengers move from terminal to terminal on foot, on moving walkways, or by train. By keeping passenger transportation underground, the airport is able to provide enough room for even the tallest aircraft to taxi directly to a gate.
Keeping Air Traffic Safe
The airport contains five runways. Two of them are to the north, while three of them are to the south of the terminal buildings. Each runway extends from east to west. The two longest runways are 12,390 feet and 10,000 feet long and are located closest to the terminals. The three other runways are each 9,000 feet long. Two of the runways are longer to accommodate airplanes when they take off. When a jet takes off, it is much heavier than when it lands because it still contains all of the fuel it will need for its flight. Because it is heavier, it needs more distance to build up speed in order to take off. Landing airplanes use the shorter runways. By the time they land, airplanes are lighter because they have burned much of their fuel during their flights.
All five runways are parallel to each other. Since these runways do not cross one another, several planes can take off or land at the same time without concern about their paths intersecting. When weather is good in Atlanta, about 90 aircraft can land and 100 aircraft can take off, every hour.
Air traffic into Hartsfield-Jackson is managed by federal air traffic controllers who are employed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). One type of air traffic controller is called a ground controller. The ground controller helps direct airplanes moving on the ground between the airport’s terminals and runways. Another type of worker is the tower controller. Tower controllers are responsible for airplanes on the runway—when they take off and when they land. Tower controllers sit in a large control tower located at the airport. They use binoculars and radar to keep track of each plane’s location.
Once planes take off, they are quickly out of range of the ground and tower controllers. Airplanes leaving or approaching the airport are monitored by approach controllers. These controllers are stationed at the Terminal Radar Control facility in nearby Peachtree City, which is about 25 miles from the airport. Since airplanes are too high up or far away to be seen, approach controllers cannot rely on binoculars. Instead, they must utilize radar and written records to guide their work.
When planes head into Atlanta, the approach controllers at the Terminal Radar Control facility direct planes into Atlanta airspace through one of four designated corner posts. The corner posts are located about 40 miles away from the airport.
In contrast, departing planes are directed toward one of eight departure points. There are four pairs of departure paths, each pair lying between each corner post. Since these paths through the air cannot be marked with lines or signs like roads on the ground, pilots rely on approach controllers to make sure they follow the correct paths into and out of Atlanta. These arrival and departure routes are similar to on- and off-ramps on a highway. By following these routes, planes can take off and land in a steady and gentle way. The invisible ramps also ensure that airplanes do not interfere with one another, as well as stay away from smaller municipal airports in the area.