Airport celebrates 80th birthday

By Justin Boron

From a shoe shining seat, Clarence Byrd has watched the Atlanta airport transform from a couple of mail-carrier landing strips to one of the busiest transportation hubs in the world.

Emerging from a 287-acre overgrown race track in 1925, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, originally called Candler Field, celebrated its 80th year last week during a breakfast at the Renaissance Atlanta Concourse Hotel.

In the near century that it has existed, the airport has been through three name changes and numerous expansions that have enabled it to move millions of passengers each year.

Byrd, 65, hasn't outlived the airport. But few people can say they've been there for the majority of their life.

"I've been here for 47 years," he said.

Starting as a waiter and eventually picking up a shine box, Byrd said the airport was a much different landscape in 1960 than the constant hustle and bustle that it is today.

For one, the most common airline uniform to see then wasn't Delta Air Lines or Air Tran Airways. Eastern Airlines was the airport's largest carrier at the time, he said.

The passengers also were a stark contrast from the diverse sea of people who today move through the terminal in anything from a business suit to ragged jeans and a T-shirt.

"They used to come in dressed up," Byrd said. "Now they come in casual, whatever."

Phyllis Harvey, 45, a Transportation Security Administration employee, said the biggest change in the passengers has been in their willingness to fly.

"A lot of people back then probably were fearing the flight," she said. "Now people are flying like they're driving cars."

At the ceremony celebrating the 80th year, Ben DeCosta, airport general manager, highlighted the future of the airport as it completes $5.4 billion worth of expansion projects including a new control tower, a fifth runway, and another international terminal.

The expansion has become imperative to handle increasing passenger numbers, he said.

Built in 1980, the current facilities were only equipped to handle 55 million passengers. Last year the airport moved 84 million passengers. Airport officials expect to accommodate 88 million by the end of this year.

DeCosta also framed the airport as an economic engine that revved the regional economy with jobs and new business. When it opened, the airport employed 8,000 employees. Now, DeCosta heralds it is the largest employment center in the state with 55,000 jobs.