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Monday, August 11, 2014 - 2:00am

Charting The Future Of Atlanta's Airport

The new General Manager of Atlanta's airport wants to lure more international visitors to the city.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the world's busiest, serving around 95 million passengers every year. But only 10 million or so arrive from foreign destinations. General Manager Miguel Southwell is keen to offer direct flights to cities in China and India. (Delta offered non-stop service to Shanghai, but suspended the flights in 2011, citing high fuel prices and low demand).

Last year, the Atlanta City Council approved a new incentive for international carriers: the airport would waive landing fees (which can range from $500,000 to $1.5 million, annually) for one year. Southwell says the city could also promote itself as a shopping destination for travelers from countries like Brazil and Chile (Delta offers nonstop service to both). He says airports in New York and Miami already do so.

"At one airport, the contractor that shrink wraps bags for people who shop guarantees the airport nine and a half million dollars." Southwell says.

Miguel Southwell says he also wants to grow Hartsfield-Jackson's cargo business. The airport, he says, is mostly dormant late at night once passenger flights end.

"We all get excited when you get to the airport during the day, up until about 10:30 at night, because we see almost 60,000 employees and Atlantans working," he says. "That economic engine and that job engine, however, tends to go to sleep at about 10:30 at night."

Southwell says he would like to see Hartsfield-Jackson become a hub for the movement of perishable goods, such as food and other agricultural products.

Looking Ahead
Southwell and his team are busy putting the finishing touches on a new master plan, which should be complete by the end of the summer. The previous plan included the construction of an additional runway and the construction of Councourse F, a terminal now devoted to international flights. In the coming years, Southwell says Hartsfield-Jackson will need to build new parking decks and renovate the existing terminal buildings, most of which are over 30 years old. In all, he says, the new plan could cost around $4 billion. Southwell anticipates most of the funding for the plan will come from bonds and fees paid by passengers.

Beyond The Island
Mayor Kasim Reed named Southwell the new GM in May (he had been serving on an interim basis since January), but he has a long history with the airport. He worked in various roles at Hartsfield-Jackson from 1990 to 2001. He then served as Deputy Director of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department in Florida. Southwell says his interest in air travel began during his childhood, on the Caribbean island of Antigua.

"I think, intuitively, when you grow up on a small rock, you're always on the ocean," he says. "And you think, there's something else out there and there's always a curiosity about interacting and knowing what else was out there."