Interview with John Selden, Airport General Manager, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
“Safety, efficiency, and connectivity are the keys to success. Our passengers value the ease of operation and the speed with which we can move people here in a very pleasant and enjoyable way.”
Just one year ago, you assumed the position of Atlanta International Airport General Manager. How has it been the experience of running the world’s busiest airport these first twelve months?
My experience at Hartsfield-Jackson over the past year has been both incredibly busy and incredibly rewarding. I’ve gotten to know and work closely with the team, and I feel we have a bright future moving forward. We hosted 107 million passengers last year, and we’re looking at another three to four million passengers in growth this year. Looking back, it’s been wonderful to know that we are able to handle such a substantial increase in passenger numbers and still maintain our high level of customer service. Thanks to the hard work of our team and all our partners—from the airlines, to concessionaires, to local and federal agencies—we have succeeded.
One of the more thrilling experiences I’ve enjoyed over the past year was the collaboration with Amazon Air, which now hosts daily cargo service to ATL and will increase service in the months ahead. Expanding cargo operations was one of my missions when I arrived here. I believe Hartsfield-Jackson’s location—with its highways adjacent to the airport and with direct train service to the Port of Savannah—is key. Additionally, 27-hundred flights a day can move e-commerce goods in the bellies of our airline partners’ airplanes from around the world. The e-commerce industry is discovering that potential which will lead to more growth at ATL.
Cargo has tremendous capacity and potential. We just leased a 150 thousand square foot warehouse to Worldwide Freight Services. We are in the process of creating a public-private partnership to develop a sixty-five-acre parcel for the future growth of cargo. Swissport has hired three hundred new workers to work with Amazon Prime. Cargo is growing, and will continue to grow.
According to the annual study on satisfaction at airports in North America, Atlanta airport satisfaction inched up to a score of 773 on a 1,000-point scale in 2019. What do you think passengers value the most in ATL?
Safety, efficiency, and connectivity are the keys to success. Our passengers value the ease of operation and the speed with which we can move people here in a very pleasant and enjoyable way. We have about 65 million passengers connected through the airport every year, and those connections, sometimes, can be as short as 40 minutes. Because of our design, engineering in our vertical circulation systems, and our Plane Train, we make those connections simple and efficient. The Plane Train is a marvel: it moves passengers from concourse to concourse seamlessly. If our passengers do have extra time, we invite them to walk between our concourses and take in our award winning art displays. The variety and quality of the displays really brightens each guest’s visit, and makes them smile. We are very proud of our art program.
We’re just as proud of the restaurant and retail options we offer. There are some 330 concessionaires on our concourses that serve everything, from a homemade Georgia barbecue to a four-star sushi seafood restaurant. We have everything from quick-grab kiosks to very nice sit-down restaurants. We also have twelve airport clubs for passengers. Finally, our—still new—international terminal is world class, and competes with any other terminal in the system.
Our scores have gone up because we’re focused on the customer, and our goal is to provide that customer a level of service that is unsurpassed in North America.
You can be the highest-traffic airport and also the most efficient, as the Air Transport Research Society (ATRS) says. What is the best formula to improve ATL operations but at the same time to provide an outstanding customer travel experience?
We need to continue to expand our airside facilities to increase capacity and improve our efficiency. Firstly, we’re building an additional end-around taxiway that will improve safety, reduce taxi time, and ultimately save fuel. Secondly, we are building five additional gates which will accommodate more flights and will improve our resiliency should an airplane have an issue at the gate. From the landside perspective, we are looking at extending our Plane Train system, which will increase passenger throughput by up to twenty percent. Our population is aging, and we want to provide more elevators and escalators for those who prefer them, so we’re adding vertical circulation systems to improve the customer experience and make their passage through ATL more efficient.
Efficiency is job one. The fact that we’re the busiest airport in the world is important, but more important to us is the distinction that we’re the most efficient in the world. That efficiency is what attracts more passengers, more businesses, and more economic growth for the airport and the City of Atlanta. In collaboration with our partners, we’ve put systems in place that improve on-time operations, ensure superlative customer service, and maintain efficiencies that enable our airline partners to achieve maximum revenue per passenger.
There are ongoing projects included at ATL’s 20-year expansion and modernization program aimed at replacing aging facilities and enabling growth. What can you tell us about the stages of this plan?
Our twenty-year expansion and modernization program is well underway and the funding is in place. Our Landside modernization plan, called LMOD, includes the expansion of our terminals and parking structures. We recently completed the construction of twin, 800-foot long, illuminated canopies that cover our inbound roadways and will soon become architectural icons for the City of Atlanta. We’ve started on our Plane Train turnaround, which will speed up passenger transport; we’ve started our five-gate expansion of the T-North concourse, and we are looking forward to the T-South concourse expansion. We are also looking forward to expanding Concourse D to handle the upgauging in airplanes as we expect we’ll have very few regional jets here in the very near future. Plus, we are looking at expanding the midpoints and quarterpoints of each concourse to handle the higher volume of passengers. As mentioned earlier, we are looking at increased vertical circulation systems. We are building five additional checkpoint lanes at the South checkpoint; we’re also building a sixty-five acre deicing facility to speed the deicing process when we do get ice here. Yes, we do get ice here in Atlanta from time to time.
Our goal while we build is to ensure we don’t sacrifice our customer experience during the construction process. Admittedly, that is a challenge, but the coordination between the contractors, our stakeholders, and our engineering department has succeeded so far.
ATL is working on continuous improvements to be also the “greenest” airport. What are the ongoing measures and policies in relation to the sustainability goals for 2020?
There is a variety of sustainability efforts ATL is pursuing, and I could spend all day listing them: first, we are moving forward with our Green Acres program—it’s a facility designed to process our refuse onsite. It’s a unique project that could very well be copied at other airports. One of the first steps taken to begin Green Acres was the implementation of the Sustainable Food Court Initiative, an effort to work with our concessionaires to reduce potential contamination of the “waste” stream that will be going to the new facility.
The City of Atlanta will soon implement a citywide smoking ban, which will extend to the airport.
We’re reducing food waste by ensuring that leftover goods and surplus food is donated to appropriate agencies across the region that work to fight hunger.
We’ve instituted a ban on plastic ware in our food courts.
We recently opened a building powered, in part, by solar panels.
We have E-charging stations for electric vehicles throughout our parking structures.
All of our buildings are certified LEED silver or higher, and we promote commuter awareness for our 63-thousand employees.
We have developed the P&D Sustainable Design Guidelines for our designers and contractors.
We have incorporated green infrastructure into some of our projects to be a better steward of the Flint River, which flows beneath the airport.
We have two all-electric buses and we are working to convert 20% of our fleet to electric to meet the City’s electrification goals.
Our airfield was the first all-LED airfield in North America.
We help employees recycle clothing and electronics. Through these programs, we have reduced our emissions, water and energy use as well as the amount of waste generated at the airport.
Sustainability is, to us, one of our top goals.
Airports are changing fast along with technology advances and passengers expectations. In your opinion, what will airports look like in the future?
Biometrics will make airport process as seamless as possible. We will know you’re coming, we’ll know when you get here; we’ll know when you’re on board an aircraft. We will speed you through baggage check, through TSA, through customs, and then onto a plane in a manner as quickly and pleasant as possible. We expect our concessionaires to also use biometrics to facilitate your purchase, payment, and—if necessary—shipment of goods bought here. Parking will be made much easier, efficient, and frictionless from arrival at / to departure from the airport. Basically, Biometrics will ease your passage through airports in the years ahead.