By Justin Boron
AirTran employee Antonio Andrews perched over the runway at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and picked up a gem - a deserted fuel cap about the size of a compact disc.
Immediately, he was surrounded by a group of impressed co-workers admiring the find.
Few pieces of discarded metal garnered the attention and envy that the cap did Wednesday morning, when nearly 150 airport workers combed the northern-most runway for debris.
But Andrews' discovery came during the Foreign Object Debris Walk, an annual hunt along one of the airport's runways that transforms junk, rocks, and trash into treasure.
While many other participants came back with only pebbles and glass in their bags, Andrews took home a souvenir.
Asked if he would keep the trinket, Andrews said, "I'll take it to the pawn shop."
The walk began at around sunrise when air traffic was minimal and could be suspended without causing delays.
Workers formed a 150-foot wide human dragnet on each side of the 1.7-mile Runway 8, converging on each other to collect as much loot as possible.
Typically, airport maintenance crews scathe runways and tarmacs each day to remove the debris, which in any other place than an airport would be just a nuisance.
But at the airport, the trash is a potentially expensive hazard.
The rocks, pebbles, and metal can tear an engine apart if sucked up by one of the planes.
Shortened to "FOD" by most airport workers, the debris costs the airlines as much as $4 billion a year in damaged engines, tires, landing gear, and wings.
Weather can make FOD especially problematic.
"It's amazing all the debris that falls off," said Keith Boyd, 39, a central supply employee for AirTran. "On a windy day, that's when the FOD gets real bad."
While the FOD Walk serves a small practical purpose, it is largely a symbolic event to raise awareness at local airports and military bases about the danger of debris, said Airport General Manager Ben DeCosta
"As the world's busiest passenger airport, we have a responsibility to ensure that all staff members, as well as the community, understand the important role our operations team has in identifying and removing foreign object debris from the runways," he said.
Boyd also said he enjoys the camaraderie of the early morning event.
"You get to meet people from different airlines," he said.
Participants included employees from Delta Air Lines, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, and American Airlines along with several representatives Boy Scout's of America troops from the South Fulton County area.