On September 21st, it will have been 40 years ago that Atlanta's Midfield Terminal Complex opened for traffic.
Its characteristic layout of long concourses, perpendicular to the runway and connected by an underground people mover system, ensured a highly efficient movement of both passengers and aircraft. For the decades that followed, Atlanta would become the gold standard for the design of hub airports.
However, did you know that the design evolved from a plan that was very similar to the original plan for Dallas/Fort Worth Airport? It's only due to project delays that we got the the "ATL" we know today. Read all about it below!
THE NEED FOR A NEW TERMINAL
Atlanta's previous terminal was completed in 1961. It was originally designed for 13.5 million passengers, a level that was already reached in the mid-1960s.
In 1967 the city decided it was time to build a new terminal and modify the existing one. In November 1967 a consortium of architects commenced the difficult task of designing the world's largest air passenger terminal building.
Everyone--the airlines, the two participating joint venture planning firms and even airline pilots--submitted ideas for the terminal design. The architects compiled sixty concepts into a briefing book. Those were narrowed down to ten for a more detailed study.
INSPIRATION FROM TEXAS
In the late 1960s the primary consideration in airport design was passenger convenience in the form of short walking distances between parking facilities and aircraft gates.
In December 1967, the master plan for the newly planned Dallas/Fort Worth Regional Airport was published. Prepared by Walther Prokosch, who also designed the original Pan Am terminal and the Worldport expansion, the plan proposed the concept of 20 self-contained terminals along a connecting roadway.
An artist's impression of the original master plan for the new Dallas/Fort Worth Regional Airport. In a way, the plan can be seen as an optimized version of New York Kennedy's Terminal City but also LAX, with each airline operating its own facilities. Later on, the terminals were changed to a semi-circular shape.
Airlines praised the model. They loved the idea of operating their own airport facilities and the small airport convenience the "mini-terminals" brought.
Thus, the Atlanta architects developed their own version of the DFW plan. They conceived the midfield complex as a series of sixteen terminal units along structural, double-decked roadways of Interstate 85 on the west. The roadways met on the east side and continued at ground level to Interstate 75.
Each terminal was self-contained with aircraft gates, ticketing and baggage facilities. The 600-foot (183-meter) central strip was dedicated to roadways and parking garages. A people mover system ran through the upper level of each terminal, parallel to the roadways. Other features included a hotel and an automated sorting system for mail and baggage.
SLIPPING TIMELINE: A BLESSING IN DISGUISE
Initially the completion date for the new midfield expansion was 1972. However, the timetable slipped by years due to airline politics, economic downturns, financing issues as well as discussions about a second airport. This had a major advantage: there was ample time to adjust and fine-tune the design for the midfield complex.
By 1971 the original design was still more or less intact. However, the central area had been reduced from 600 to 200 feet and the people mover was no longer elevated.
The layout was very much tailored to Atlanta's "O&D" (origin and destination) passengers. However, at the time 70% of passengers changed flights at the airport. With the proposed design, most transfer passengers would have to change terminals in order to catch their onward flight.
Even cities that had large volumes of connecting passengers had never specifically addressed this situation: they had merely adapted standard airport designs. Therefore, no precedent existed from which Atlanta's planners could draw.
In a conceptual breakthrough in 1973, the complex had been split into two distinct sections, airside terminals with aircraft parking gates and landside terminals for ticketing and baggage.
Roadways and parking were moved away from the aircraft gates and concentrated around the landside facilities, making the roadway system much simpler, while still creating curb space for hundreds of cars per hour.
Although the separation was not considered particularly significant at the time, it marked the point at which the airport veered away from its "drive to the plane" stance and began to deal with the particular requirements of a transfer airport.
Originating and terminating passengers would shuttle between the terminals and six airside concourses on a sunken but exposed people mover system, the sole means of transportation within the complex.
As ticketing and baggage facilities no longer had to be provided in each airside terminal, more aircraft gates could be added. The elimination of roadways and parking freed additional space.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST
Another major change was to come in the winter of 1975. Due to an ice storm at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the Airtrans people mover system, the ground level people mover that had been a model for Atlanta's planning, became paralyzed.
The designers realized that Atlanta's system would be vulnerable under similar conditions. It was a risk that airlines would not accept. Thus, during an intense brainstorming session Delta's facility department recommended covering the "ditch" that contained the people mover system, thereby protecting it from the elements.
Putting the people mover underground also removed the barrier between the north and south runway systems and eliminated the need for costly taxiway bridges. Also, the taxiways that in earlier layouts had separated the landside and airside terminals could be eliminated.
Next the Delta team recommended that two parallel terminals replace the three landside linear landside buildings. This move, coupled with the removal of the taxiways, allowed the half-concourse to become a full concourse, adding twelve gates.
THE FINAL STEP IN CREATING THE "ATL" WE KNOW TODAY
A final critical step was to divide the people mover tunnel into two chambers and separate them to allow for a pedestrian mall in between. Lastly, the planners re-positioned the terminals from a north-south to an east-west alignment and placed them back to back.
The number of concourses was reduced to four domestic concourses boasting 26 gates each, with space to build a fifth concourse. An international concourse was added adjacent to the north terminal.
On April 18th, 1977, the contracts for construction of the terminal building and the people mover were awarded and construction could begin, almost ten years after the start of the design process. All good things take time!
For this blog the fantastic 1989 book "A Dream Takes Flight" by Betsy Braden & Paul Hagan was a huge inspiration. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about the history of Atlanta Airport pre-1990.
We hope you enjoyed this little piece of history on the development of Atlanta's Midfield Terminal. In the future we are also planning a full multi-part history on the development of Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Sign up below to know when new content is released!
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I want to give a special thanks to Marie Force of the Delta Flight Museum for her assistance in preparing this article.
ALL GOOD THINGS TAKE TIME
In democracies, development of big infrastructure projects can take decades. This especially applies to airports, which have a huge impact beyond their perimeter. For example, Amsterdam Schiphol's newest runway opened in 2003, 35 years after it first appeared in planning documents.
London Heathrow's third runway takes the cake however. Did you know that plans to construct new runways north of Heathrow date back all the way to 1946?
According to the airport's original development plan, initially Heathrow would boast six runways laid out in a Star-of-David pattern: two main east-west runways, which could handle the heaviest aircraft of the time, along with four shorter diagonal runways.
Passenger terminals were to be located in the middle of the field in order to optimize aircraft taxiing times to and from the runways.
In a second development phase, a further three runways in a triangular pattern would be built north of Bath Road, bringing the total to nine runways!
The expansion would have necessitated the demolition of the two nearby villages of Harlington and Sipson. The Illustrated London News article mentioned that: "This work will not be undertaken before 1950 in order to... give ample warning to the householders concerned."
The first six runways as well as the central terminal area were built as planned. The northward expansion, however, was thought to be costly and unnecessary, and plans were shelved.
FROM SIX RUNWAYS TO TWO
Due the expansion of the central terminal area, as well as the new generation of jets needing longer runways, three of Heathrow's four diagonal runways had been closed by the 1970s, leaving Heathrow with three runways.
The last remaining diagonal runway, runway 5/23, was decommissioned in 2003, leaving Heathrow with its current two runways.
Discussions about the construction of a third parallel runway resurfaced again in the 1980s. Between 1990 and 2015, three major studies were undertaken, all of which concluded that a third runway at Heathrow afforded the greatest benefits.
THE THIRD RUNWAY IS FINALLY COMING...OR NOT?
In 2018, the UK House of Commons voted in favor of the expansion, after which a public consultation started. According to the planning, the third runway would open in 2026, 80 years after it was first conceived!
However, in February 2020, plans were blocked by an appeals court on environmental grounds. At the time of writing, the project could face many more years of delays, and with climate change now becoming a political priority, there is a chance that the scheme will be cancelled altogether.
You can read many more details about Heathrow's history in the book Heathrow Airport 70 years and Counting, written by aviation journalist Kevan James. You can find more analysis on the recent court decision his website KJM Today.
What are your thoughts about London's third runway project? Let us know in the comments below!
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AMSTERDAM SCHIPHOL IN THE MID-1980S
As the aviation community celebrates the 100th anniversary of KLM, AirportHistory.org is preparing a detailed history on Schiphol Airport, which actually predates KLM by more than three years!
To get in the mood, I wanted to share this amazing illustration below of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport in the mid-1980s. When I was a kid, I used to have this image as a huge poster. I was so happy to find it back during one of my recent archival digs!
It shows the Schiphol that I knew as a kid: state-of-the-art, small and convenient! Since then, the terminal has doubled in size and several new concourses have been built and existing ones extended.
Have a close look at the details of the photo. The round structure adjacent to the terminal (center of image) is the "old" railway station. Opened in 1978, the station was torn down after only 15 years and rebuilt into the "Schiphol Plaza" complex we know today. Can some of you still remember the tunnel connecting the railway station to the terminal?
Note the open parking lot on the right, which is now a huge multi-level parking structure with offices built on top. Also note the still-empty polder landscape south of the airport.
The motorway running through it used to offer expansive views of the beautiful Dutch skies. Nowadays, the polder is cluttered with office parks, housing developments, infrastructure and--in the finest tradition--huge windmills!
Foreign visitors in the image include 747s of Braniff, CP Air, Singapore Airlines and Qantas, as well as DC-10s of Malaysian Airline System and Finnair, as well as a DC-8 from Surinam Airways. Surinam is one of Holland's former colonies.
Interestingly, you'll see planes are parked parallel to the concourse as well as nose-in. Indeed, for a number of years, Schiphol used a combination of the two, with newly built wide-body gates in the 1970s being nose-in positions. Gates for smaller aircraft were converted in the mid-1980s.
SOMETHING IS NOT QUITE RIGHT
I'm sure that readers familiar with Schiphol have already noticed that something about this illustration is "off" and that's what makes it so unique: Pier E, the second concourse from the right (then called Pier C) has been expanded with a "Y-shaped" structure, similar to the other piers.
Indeed, this was originally the plan. But in the early 1980s, it was decided to completely rebuild Pier E, with the design departing from this "Y" shape. See below for how it turned out.
From this interesting deviation and the visiting aircraft, I gather that the drawing dates back to the early 1980s or even late 1970s.
I have been unable to properly identify the artist who made this drawing. Only his given name "Hubert" is visible on the edge of the drawing. Can one of our readers perhaps help?
Hope you enjoyed! This was just a snapshot of Schiphol's history but we are working on a muti-part history as well as several photo specials.
Did you notice other interesting things about this illustration? Please share your thoughts below ↓
With a title inspired by the setting of the iconic 70s film "Airport", this blog is the ultimate destination for airport history fans.
Marnix (Max) Groot Founder of AirportHistory.org. Max is an airport development expert and historian.