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DeCosta: Airport ready for holiday travelers

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Nationally, passenger air travel is down by five percent, which means less revenue for most U.S. airports this season.

Even so, Ben DeCosta, aviation general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, says the airport is still doing everything it can -- strategically and fiscally -- to ensure that Thanksgiving travelers have an enjoyable experience.

DeCosta says the airport is cutting back on its capital spending, instituting a hiring freeze, and concentrating funds on areas to make the airport more efficient.

"The airport is very strong financially," he says. "[However,] we are very cautious. We presently have a hiring freeze at the airport. I decide on every single hire. We've also cut our capital expenditures by $250 million in the 2009 budget."

DeCosta says the airport deferred building a new, 6,000 space parking lot, and invested in efficiency-related projects, such as its recently completed, $26 million improvement to the airport's security checkpoints.

With 10 new security lanes (six in the North Terminal and four in the South Terminal), improved X-ray technology, and additional staffing, DeCosta says he would be surprised if security wait times were longer than 10 minutes, during the Thanksgiving weekend.

In order to bring in more revenue, airport officials recently launched a "retail renaissance," in which they plan to open 70 new retail stores in the facility by next summer.

New, upscale shopping options will include retailers, Sean John, Lacoste, Brooks Brothers, Mori Luggage, and the recently-opened Atlanta Magazine's HOME store.

"We expect some contraction of the entire industry in the next year," says DeCosta. "We are watching it cautiously, because it all depends on what the customers will do."

Jon Allen, spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), says that, in order to cut down on holiday travel confusion, the airport has instituted special lanes for expert travelers, for casual travelers, and for those who need special assistance, such as families with small children.

Black diamond lanes, the concept taken from operations at successful ski resorts, gives light-packing, frequent fliers the chance to move through the airport quickly.

The blue square lanes accommodate the average traveler with multiple carry-ons.

The green circle lanes give people with strollers, wheelchairs, or families in tow, the ability to check in at their own pace.

Allen says the program has cut down the number of times passengers set off metal detectors and alert X-ray examiners, and that has contributed to more efficient lines.

"What we've seen since we established the program is a decrease in the number of lines, either at the metal detector or the X-ray machine," says Allen. "It still provides families the time they need to make sure everything is right."

For more ways to cut down on wait times, visit www.tsa.gov.