In Atlanta, a quest to keep its airport the world’s busiest

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International lost its top perch to Chicago’s O’Hare in a recent ranking of airports based on takeoffs and landings.

The typical flier might wonder why an airport would promote its designation as the world’s busiest. Images of long lines, crowded concourses and auxiliary parking lots in the next area code could be evoked.

But it is no small matter at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, where officials say that the vibrancy of the local economy rests in part on how many passengers course through its sprawling terminals every day.

And it is why some of those authorities took notice recently that Chicago’s O’Hare International surpassed Hartsfield-Jackson in one measurement of an airport’s activity: takeoffs and landings.

Soon after, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced that he was gathering a dozen marketing experts from prominent local firms and civic organizations to figure out how to keep its airport — and the area’s fiscal fitness — thriving.

“We want to make sure we’re not sitting on our laurels,” Reed said. “Candidly, we were failing to aggressively promote the city to passengers passing through.”

Indeed, growth in the airport’s traffic, after decades of steadily climbing, has leveled off in the last decade and is barely increasing.

While the idea of a committee was conceived well before the latest passenger and operations statistics were disclosed, Reed said that one goal was to maximize flier volume. The thinking is, as more knowledge about the city is shared to the airport’s clientele, more jobs in the surrounding area could be created.

Richard K. Green, a business and public policy professor at the University of Southern California, sees a correlation between busy airports and faster gains in jobs and population.

“While it is very difficult to separate cause from effect, in my view there is stronger evidence than not that a busy airport leads to growth,” he said.

The belief is that spreading awareness entices businesses, especially those based overseas, to relocate or expand in Atlanta, which happens to own and run the airport.

To Jeffrey A. Rosensweig, associate professor of international business and finance at Emory University in Atlanta, a booming airport’s role in robust areas that it serves cannot be underestimated.

“An airport can wield tremendous impact on the economic health of its city and its whole region. I believe that the global economy is pivoting around major hubs for trade and finance. World-class transportation facilities are a key to becoming a hub,” he said, citing Dallas and Denver as examples.

The two cities “invested massive dollars in huge new airports and they have helped jobs and real estate boom in their regions,” he added.

No city-airport tandem has prospered in lockstep like Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson.

“The airport has been almost uniquely crucial to the rapid and sustained development of Metro Atlanta and, frankly, of Georgia,” Rosensweig said. He suggested Hartsfield-Jackson deserved credit in luring factories and corporate headquarters like UPS and Porsche, and the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Civic leaders have long envisioned the airport — a frequent stop for many Delta Air Lines passengers from Charleston International — as a major component in helping to advance the area’s growth. In 1961, well before Atlanta was a primary population center, the largest single terminal in the country was christened. It was followed 19 years later by what was then the world’s biggest passenger terminal complex.

One reason to focus on raising passenger numbers is that some airlines already with a presence will increase routes and those without a foothold will enter the market. Hartsfield-Jackson craves more direct international flights appealing to foreign business leaders who might establish a presence in the region.

The airport is promoting itself as the busiest for the 17th straight year, citing Airports Council International statistics showing that slightly more than 96 million fliers boarded or exited planes (or both) there in 2014. The runner-up in the U.S. was O’Hare, with just under 70 million.

The Chicago airport leapfrogged Hartsfield-Atlanta for operations or, in aviation parlance, movements. O’Hare, which had ceded the distinction to its southern rival in 2005, recorded nearly 882,000, compared with some 868,000 in Atlanta.

Hartsfield-Jackson noted in a news release that passenger count is the metric for world’s busiest that is most recognized by the industry.

Miguel Southwell, the airport’s general manager of aviation, took a subtle dig at O’Hare, saying Atlanta was not concerned that Chicago moves millions fewer passengers than Hartsfield-Jackson does, “while using more aircraft.”

Reed is equally unrestrained with making the “world’s busiest” boast. Like Southwell, he maintains that it carries discernible benefits. “I definitely think so,” said the mayor, noting how chief executives of major companies that have dropped anchor in the area have mentioned the ranking. About 1,500 German firms alone have metropolitan Atlanta mailing addresses.

But some aviation officials are skeptical that the world’s busiest crown bears direct fruit on its own.

“It’s a fascinating story,” said Rafael Echevarne of the Airports Council International World, a global trade rep. “Nonetheless, there are no tangible benefits to being the world’s busiest airport, whether from a passenger traffic or aircraft movement perspective, other than the recognition.”

And the title may not last long. Dubai, the world’s busiest international hub, is growing fast and, more immediately, the surging Beijing Capital International is about 10 million passengers a year behind, with the gap steadily narrowing.