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.
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