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Atlanta’s new air terminal ready for takeoff

Jim Burress May 16, 2012

David Brancaccio: In Atlanta this morning, the world’s busiest airport welcomes its first passengers to a brand-new, $1.4 billion international terminal. But Atlanta airport officials have two big fears: they’re called “Denver International” and “London Heathrow” — where chaos ensued when new terminals opened there.

Jim Burress reports from WABE.

Nachu Anbil: So are you excited, Vaghel, that you’re going to the new international terminal?

Jim Burress: On a recent Wednesday morning, the Anbil family drives from their suburban Atlanta home to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Vachel Anbil: This doesn’t look anywhere near the airport. Are we going the right way?

Passengers have to take a different interstate to get to the new terminal. That’s enough to get even these frequent fliers lost.

Vachel Anbil: It smells new.

When they do make it — Vaghel, his father Nachu and mother Mamata peer up at the impressive, curved ceilings. Three-stories-tall windows let in the noontime sky. The Anbils are among 1,600 volunteers here putting the terminal to the test.

The airport’s given them a scenario to act out. It takes them to the Delta Air Lines’ counter to check in for a flight to Stockholm.

Delta Air Lines agent: Keep in mind, it’s not confusing. It might be big and beautiful, it’s not confusing.

The family gets their boarding passes and heads to gate F-8. Clearly, they are confused. They just kind of stop.

Nachu Anbil: I don’t know where I am, where I should go to. Maybe once you get used to it, it’ll be fine.

The new terminal features a lot of curving pathways and expansive spaces. Nachu says it’s tough to get your bearings. Still, they’re able to find their way to the gate, through customs and baggage claim. All without hassle.

That’s just how Balram Bheodari wants it. He’s the airport’s deputy general manager.

Balram Bheodari: Sometimes the unknown tends to frighten us a little bit.

Bheodari says most of the fake passengers had nothing but praise for the terminal. The only change the airport made based on the simulation was to tweak some signage in the parking lot.

Bheodari: On opening day, we’re confident that our system will work flawlessly.

The terminal’s opening is six years behind the original schedule — and twice the price cited in preliminary plans. But if Atlanta’s airport wants to keep the title of “World’s Busiest,” it needs this new terminal to succeed.

In Atlanta, I’m Jim Burress for Marketplace.

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