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Learning from mega-airport

Officials here study Atlanta

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New international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia.

VINO WONG / ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION / MCT Enlarge Image

New international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia.

ATLANTA -- Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport may be the biggest in the world, but it can still serve as a template for the Winnipeg Airports Authority.

Barry Rempel, president and CEO of the WAA, is still in the early stages of turning his dream of an airport campus into a reality -- the $550-million terminal building only recently celebrated its second birthday -- but Atlanta appears to have perfected the airport business model.

Balram Bheodari, deputy general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson, said its "aeronopolis" is a self-sustained community with virtually every amenity imaginable, including retail stores, restaurants, its own fire and police departments, a medical centre and a people-mover train connecting the terminal to a string of hotels. And if you're a religious person, there's even a place of worship.

Just because Atlanta's airport processes about 95 million passengers annually and has more than 910,000 takeoffs and landings -- Winnipeg, by comparison, has about 3.5 million passengers and 130,000 aircraft movements -- doesn't mean the WAA can't go to school on it. The model is scalable, he said.

The revenues brought in by the many retailers and service providers overseen by Hartsfield-Jackson serve one very important purpose -- they keep landing fees for domestic and international carriers as low as possible.

The lower the landing fees, the more profitable the carriers will be, the more they'll want to do business out of a particular community and the more competitive airfares will be.

"When you move 95 million people through the airport, people spend a lot of money. They're consumers at the end of the day.

"This brings in a lot of non-aeronautical revenue," he said, noting concessions and parking are the two biggest contributors.

He said airports have come a long way since the days not too many years ago when their only purpose was as a place to drop off or pick up travellers.

"You no longer go to a vending machine (when you're hungry). Some airports have spas, five-star dining, entertainment for children; there's a plethora of things an airport has to look at now to attract passengers. Once you attract them, you get them to spend dollars. It has to be competitive to an upscale mall," he said.

Shelley Lamar, planning manager at Hartsfield-Jackson, said since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, additional security requirements mean travellers are spending more time in airports than ever before.

She cautioned airports have to be careful they have enough room for future expansion because they don't want to be butting up against residential neighbourhoods down the road.

"The airport can't be an island. You have to work with the surrounding communities to make sure they're safe and their streets are up to par. You want to be world-class. The area surrounding it needs to be clean and well-lit," she said.

Rempel said his plans of creating an airport city have picked up steam as he and his team have developed a better understanding of the economic theory and what it could do for Winnipeg and the surrounding area.

"We do envision a day when things like medical facilities will be here. The growth of the additional activity will mean employers wanting to have such facilities close by to minimize downtime," he said.

Rempel also wants to have "aerolanes" in and out of the airport city, along which would be complementary businesses and developments.

For example, along the southern route to downtown, there is already a retail and residential corridor. To the west, the plan is to have value-added manufacturing and warehousing for companies that require easy access for air distribution.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 15, 2014 B4

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