Atlanta Opens New International Air Terminal

The $1.4 billion project includes 12 new gates and eight security checkpoints. It's designed to allow international travelers to bypass Atlanta's main terminal. Officials hope it will attract more international businesses to Georgia.

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A new international terminal opens today at the Atlanta Airport. Hartsfield-Jackson International is already the busiest airport in the world. And the new terminal reflects a big by the business capital of the South to become a bigger global player. Georgia wants to attract more international business. NPR's Kathy Lohr has the story.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: The new terminal doesn't look like any you've probably seen. Huge windows provide a spectacular view of airplanes taking off and taxiing. A Swarovski crystal chandelier gleams nearby and waves of blue lights highlight the ceiling.

BALRAM BHEODARI: It's just amazing. It's a wow factor for our customer.

LOHR: Deputy General Manager of the airport Balram Bheodari says even jaded travelers are impressed. The vast expanse with lots of natural light is intended to have a calming effect on passengers who are stressed out after a long flight. Beyond the aesthetics, he has higher hopes for the new terminal.

BHEODARI: This airport will be one of those key decisions that we feel international business will make in moving to the state of Georgia or to the city of Atlanta. There's all sort of potential for businesses, for other activity to mushroom around this airport.

LOHR: Both Georgia's governor and Atlanta's mayor have made attracting international business a priority. The state has won auto manufacturing and parts companies, suppliers for Coca-Cola and logistics companies over the past decade. Earlier this week, construction was still going on at the new Terminal F.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

LOHR: Concession booths and restaurants are being built and stocked. Finishing touches are being added. One big change, international travelers now won't have to recheck their bags after going through customs in order to exit from the airport. That's been one of the biggest complaints from international travelers whose final destination is Atlanta.

More than 90 million passengers moved though Hartsfield-Jackson last year. The forecast is for a 30 percent increase in three more years. As domestic routes have become more costly, airlines have been consolidating. Hometown carrier Delta has continued to add profitable routes, but the airline recently cut some international destinations, including Shanghai, Athens and Moscow.

BRUCE SEAMAN: The immediate benefits will be modest I believe. The overall benefits I think in the long term may be quite substantial.

LOHR: Bruce Seaman is an economics professor at Georgia State University. Travel from the U.S. to Asia, Latin America and South America is predicted to grow and Seaman says Atlanta was willing to pay $1.4 billion for the expansion to be ready to capture that market.

SEAMAN: But again, you got to keep it in perspective. We're talking about 12 additional gates. You've got flights that are being cut back by some major airlines like Delta. And so this is definitely an investment in the future, not the present.

LOHR: Some analysts say the new terminal is a much-needed draw at a time when all airports are vying for the same international business. Craig Lesser is with the Pendleton Consulting Group.

CRAIG LESSER: The world's a competitive place. Travelers are interested in convenience. They're interested in facilitation and this is another step to maintain that cutting-edge position that Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport has had in the last 20-25 years.

LOHR: The new terminal also has a bit of whimsy.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS AND CHIMES)

LOHR: An interactive exhibit called Light Waves uses sound, music and colored lights as a distraction. It's part of the effort to calm travelers. And if nothing else, it's entertaining.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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