Look, down on the ground ... it's a plane

By Justin Boron

David Luckie has an almost atmospheric view at lunchtime.

When the midday break comes around, he jumps into a bucket and is hauled up by a crane more than 350 feet to the top of the new air traffic control tower at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

"It's just like going to Six Flags, there is nothing to it," said Luckie, 57.

On a clear day from his perch on the Southside, he said he can as see far as Stone Mountain to the northeast and Kennesaw Mountain to the northwest.

When completed, the new tower will be the tallest air traffic control tower in the nation, rising 398 feet above the ground - 91 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty and 53 feet taller than the Orlando International Airport's tower, which currently stands as the highest in the country.

People that have reached the highest ride at Six Flags over Georgia, "The Great Gasp," still have about another 200 feet to go before they reach the height of the new airport tower.

Luckie, who is a construction employee in the Ironworkers Union, contributes to the process of lifting 5,400 to 7,000 pound concrete blocks up to the top of the tower.

At the bottom, he and Durand "Cowboy" Weishaar hook the cranes' steel cable to the blocks.

They check and re-check to make sure the block won't slip out of the grasp of big metal hooks called "chokers," Weishaar said.

The task requires constant radio communication between the crane operator Kevin Robertson and the ground crew.

"You have to have a little trust, but he's a good operator," Luckie said.

Robertson sits in a cage at such great heights that he cannot come down for breaks during the day.

Spending 12 hours atop the tower, he has all the amenities of an apartment crammed into his small work area.

But his television doesn't work and his restroom is little more than a bucket, Luckie said.

Ground-workers got a break Wednesday when the Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Marion Blakey took a media tour of the project site and gave her nod of approval to the tower's progress.

"The project is coming in on schedule and on budget- that's not something you take for granted," she said.

The FAA - who owns the tower - will put up the $26,993,000 for construction costs, said Christopher White, the FAA spokesperson in Atlanta.

But through a reimbursable agreement with airport, the city of Atlanta will recompensate the FAA for construction, he said.

Atop the 17 levels, FAA air traffic controllers will work in a 1,716 square-foot cab with the fifth runway in plain view.

Combined, Aviation General Manager said the fifth runway and the tower will increase efficiency at the airport, something it desperately needs in its wait time, according to a survey by J.D. Power and Associates.

The survey was done between Oct. 25 and Nov. 12 of 2003.

Hartsfield-Jackson and Los Angeles International tied for the worst score for security checkpoints among large airports. Checkpoints were judged on the time it takes to get through security, the professionalism of the staff and whether the process made people feel safe.

Atlanta passengers were especially unhappy with the time it took to clear security, which averaged 19 minutes - an increase from 13 minutes in 2003, said Linda Hirneise, a partner in the Global Travel Practice at J.D. Power and Associates.

Atlanta's 19-minute wait gives it the fifth-longest wait time of all 76 small, medium and large airports in the study.

"We will examine the J.D. Power survey in light of the improvements we can make in addition to the improvements we've already made this year," said Robert Kennedy, director of marketing and public relations at the airport. "We're already seeing wait times that are lower than they were earlier in the year."

Passengers ranked Hong Kong No. 1 and Orlando, Fla., No. 2 in the world for 2004.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.