ATLANTA — The new $1.4 billion international terminal at the world's busiest airport will be a sleek launching pad for millions of passengers that's designed to help Atlanta grab a growing share of the lucrative market for global travelers.
Its wavy lines, expansive windows and eye-catching artwork offer a stark contrast to the boxy design of the rest of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Airport managers are already expecting an increase in international travelers over the next decade, and they hope the terminal set to open May 16 will convince airlines to route even more of their overseas flights through the city.
"This is America's new global gateway. It gives international passengers their own facility and it creates a new front door for the airport," said Al Snedeker, the airport's spokesman. "And it eases the load on the rest of the facility."
It was first proposed in 2000 to accommodate the expected surge of international travelers. The airport handled almost 10 million international passengers last year, and the Federal Aviation Administration predicts that number will grow to more than 13 million international passengers by 2015.
The project is the biggest expansion at the airport in more than 15 years. It's taken four years to build and is so vast workers built a new entrance on a busy interstate highway.
It's coming to fruition at a time when Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, the airport's biggest user, is cutting back slightly on international flights amid rising fuel prices. But neither airport officials nor airline executives expect it to have more than a short-term effect.
"The international terminal is a long-term asset that we see as a foundation for the long-term growth at our number one international gateway," said Trebor Banstetter, a Delta spokesman. "It gives us a world-class facility for our customers."
Walking into the light-filled terminal, passengers won't fail to notice broad glass windows along every wall that allows them to watch planes and lift off from the airport's five runways as they check their bags. The building, unlike the older terminal, features separate levels for arriving and departing travelers to help untangle the traffic outside.
Behind the security checkpoint is the second phase of the project: A new concourse with 12 gates for international flights, giving the airport a total of 40 international gates. That's enough to allow Delta and other carriers to offer new routes while relieving some of the strain on the airport's other five concourses.
The facility is designed to give jet-lagged passengers a place where they don't mind waiting out a flight delay, turning an airport visit from chaotic to calming. Travelers will be able to dine on organic burgers or tapas at restaurants in the concourse. Artwork includes a crystal chandelier that hangs over the concourse's sun-splashed atrium and another installation that plays soothing music for weary travelers as they file off a plane.
Some of the most impressive work is less eye-catching. Workers spent months digging a 90-foot trench under an existing concourse to extend the airport's internal subway system to the new facility.
Another popular feature will be a new system that ends the baggage re-check process for Atlanta-bound international travelers, who previously had to relinquish their bags after clearing customs and then wait for them again at baggage claim. The airport believes it will cut travel time by 45 minutes for international flyers whose destination is Atlanta.
About $1 billion of the expansion is funded by municipal bonds that would be repaid by passenger fees, and the remaining $400 million was picked up by the airlines. The changes are helping Atlanta keep up with other major international airports.
Beijing's airport, the second-busiest on the planet, completed an expansion that included a third runway and a colossal glass-and-steel terminal in time for the 2008 Olympics. And Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, the world's third-busiest, is undergoing a $15 billion expansion that will add a new runway and other upgrades.
"If Atlanta and Delta are going to compete on the global stage, you need that new terminal," airline analyst Michael Boyd said.
He said Atlanta and its U.S. rivals are seeking to position themselves as way stations on long routes between cities on separate continents.
"The future is going to be which of the airline connecting hubs become global portals that not just take people to and from Atlanta, but take people from Buenos Aires to Shanghai through Atlanta," he said. "The biggest flow is going to be between Latin America and Asia, and the US is in the middle. Those intermediate stops are the name of the game, and that means on longer flights, a stop in Atlanta makes sense."
The terminal still has hurdles to clear. Chief among them is making sure long-time travelers still get to the right place now that the airport has grown even bigger.
Transportation officials poured more than $7 million into new highway signs to remind domestic travelers to go to the main terminal and direct international passengers to the new building. And free shuttles take people from one side of the airport to another in 12 minutes.
Legal challenges threatened to derail the project, too, after several firms that lost out on lucrative airport contracts challenged the bidding process. Most of the complaints were resolved and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the one case still pending won't delay the terminal's opening.
"Our city has long been a preferred destination for international business and tourism, and I look forward to May 16 when we greet travelers from around the world in this new, state-of-the-art terminal," the mayor said.
Follow Bluestein on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/bluestein .