Most of the time when we visit airports, we see the usual facade of the operation...check-in, security, our assigned gate, the gift shops, baggage claim, etc. Rarely do we think about, much less get to see the other aspects of a large airfield operation...in this instance the busiest airport in the world! In a behind-the-scenes tour recently, I had the opportunity to visit Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, with the local Women in Aviation chapter.
We didn't get to see all of the normally unseen areas, but we saw plenty. A visit to one of the five fire stations on site was most interesting, as well as a briefing by one of the Atlanta Police Department's Bomb Squad techs. We also met one of the dog handlers, with his $55,000 explosive sniffing dog. A little rise known as "Radar Hill" was a great viewpoint to overlook two of the active runways, and we then visited the "ramp tower".
This was followed by a quick overview to the cargo operations area. There was a funky BMW suv, and a Peugeot racing car among other "high dollar" items awaiting air transport to Europe, and an MRI machine destined for Africa. The question was asked of our guide (who works at the airport) about plans to increase cargo traffic at the airfield. The current airport manager (who is leaving soon...) is not in favor of it, but the new city mayor is, as it will increase revenues for the city coffers. It will be interesting to see what transpires in the future. We were told the airport can handle much more cargo traffic. However, there are no plans currently to accommodate the enormous Airbus A380, mainly because of the expense involved in upgrading jetways, ramps, taxiways, and other aspects of the facility needed to make it ready to receive such a large aircraft.
It was also quite interesting to hear of the considerations that go into gate assignments. They are determined by the type of aircraft involved, the airline, the traffic at that time of day, and whether the gate can handle the aircraft physically. Also, since Atlanta is in the south, de-icing capabilities are very limited...which really plays havoc when it actually does get cold and nasty here, and leads to monumental congestion on the ramp. Apparently de-icing equipment is very expensive, and there's always the cost/benefit equation to consider.
Lastly we got a close-up look at one of the taxiways. All in all, it was a very educational way to spend the afternoon. If you ever get the chance to see your airport behind the scenes, I would highly recommend it!