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Atlanta's new airport: bring your hiking boots

If you intend to fly to or from the Southeast after Atlanta International Airport opens the world's largest passenger terminal in late September, one of the first things you will notice is the amount of time you may have to spend walking.

Four parallel concourses each stretch 2,200 feet from tip to tip. That is a walk of nearly half-a-mile if you arrive at one end and have to connect with a flight leaving from the other end. (The longest concourse in Atlanta's old terminal is 3,700 feet.)

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Airport officials estimate that 70 percent of the passengers using Atlanta International are only changing planes. However, they say many passengers will find that their departure gates are within 600 feet of their incoming flights -- especially if one is using the same airline.

The average time necessary to make a connecting flight will be 35 minutes, compared with 15 to 20 minutes at the old terminal, says James Stogner, manager of operations for the old terminal.

A hungry passenger awaiting a connecting flight faces a round-trip stroll of nearly three-quarters of a mile if he or she forgoes the snack bars in the concourses to eat in the restaurant at the terminal building.

The walk to a meal would be quite a bit longer were it not for a sleek electric train connecting each of the concourses with the terminal building -- a distance of 1.1 miles from the farthest concourse. There also is a long moving sidewalk for most of the distance between the terminal and the concourses. It pulsates along at a slower-than-walking speed -- but when one is loaded down with heavy suitcases, it beats walking.

Going to the restaurant, a passenger walks up to a quarter of a mile from his or her gate, descends a 40-foot escalator to the train, ascends a similar escalator at the other end, then walks through the long terminal building to the restaurant.

"By the very nature of the [airport's] size, it is impossible not to have walking distances. And in some cases, the distances are greater than we'd like to see," says Maxwel Walker, director of development and planning for the new airport. "It is certainly possible for a person to walk 2,000 feet" between planes, but that will be the exception, if no change of airlines is involved, he says.

Passengers with Atlanta as their point of origin or destination face a walk of only 300 to 400 feet from curbside to ticket desk to the train. But they add about 600 feet to that walk if they start from the middle of the parking lot.

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But there also are more subtle points to the airport that most passengers will not notice.

Landings and takeoffs will be safer than at Atlanta's old facility because planes cross fewer active runways when they taxi to and from their gates. The runways are located on either side of the terminal-concourse complex, which is in the middle of the airfield. The old terminal sits on the far edge of the airport.

The entire complex has been designed to facilitate easy access by the handicapped.

And some $87 million worth of work on the $750 million airport project was performed by minority firms, airport officials report. Atlanta's black mayor, Maynard Jackson, insisted on minority participation.

While airline and passenger reaction to the mammoth complex cannot be gauged until after the September opening, some Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) members and local residents already are voicing concerns about the airport.

Some of the $450,000 that has been spent on art to decorate the terminal should have gone into more safety equipment, says B. Victor Hewes, chief of this region's fire and rescue committee for ALPA. "We're a little worried about the response of the emergency medical team," he says.

The team should be moved from the old cargo building to the new terminal to respond quicker to emergencies among passengers on the ground, he says. And another instrument landing system is needed, in addition to an extra fire station, he says.

But both pilots and air traffic controllers say the new landing pattern that takes effect when the terminal opens will be an improvement over the existing pattern. Planes will have to cross no more than one runway while taxiing instead of the usual two now.

The new pattern will cut about five minutes off the current 10-minute average taxi time for arriving flights, says director Walker. And with 138 gates instead of 32, less delays caused by waiting for an open gate are expected. But takeoff delays -- with up to 25 or 30 planes sometimes lined up at peak hours -- will continue, he says, due to airline rush-hour scheduling.

As for local residents, Wesley Owens and more than 200 other homeowners in the immediate area have filed suit seeking damages of some $86,000 per family because of the effect of airport noise on them and their property value. The airport has bought the homes of 400 families on the other side of the airport, using federal funds.

Mr. Owens lives across from the old terminal. More than 400 planes a day fly over his house, and the numbers increase each year. They are so loud "you can't hear your television," he says.

The sheer scale of the Atlanta airport project is a manifestation of a growing trend for airlines to make more economical use of their equipment by using a major airport as the hub of their systems, with surrounding cities linked like spokes. Atlanta International serves as such a hub for Delta Airlines, which also is headquartered here, and for Miami-based Eastern Airlines.

Atlanta's is the world's busiest airline transfer hub and the second-busiest airport (after Chicago's O'Hare). It is expected to overtake O'Hare in the latter respect by the mid-1980s. Last year, a plane landed or took off every 52 seconds from Atlanta International Airport. Nearly 42 million passengers used the Atlanta airport in 1979 (compared with nearly 48 million at O'Hare). That marked an increase of 14 percent at Atlanta, while the number of passengers at O'Hare dropped slightly.

The old terminal is badly overcrowded.It was built to handle a maximum of about 15 million passengers a year. The new terminal is built for 55 million but can be enlarged to handle 75 million. Already plans are under way for a fourth runway.

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