The busiest airport in the world.
At a natural crossroads for the 19th-century railways, the highways that followed, and the airways that arose after that, Atlanta’s natural resources and people were brought together by transportation to create a manufacturing, finance, education, and media center. Atlanta’s diversity is reflected in its hometown companies, such as Coca-Cola, UPS, CNN/Turner Broadcasting, and The Home Depot.
Pioneer airlines Delta and Eastern developed ATL into the first true “hub” as they learned how to balance business and leisure traffic flows among the Northeast, Midwest, Florida, and the South. Short-haul and long-haul services were both within economical reach of common 20th-century aircraft thanks to Atlanta’s excellent geography.
After Eastern’s collapse, Delta rapidly expanded both in the USA and overseas, finding Atlanta again to be placed ideally to balance West Coast, Transatlantic and Latin American traffic flows. Today ATL is not just a true global hub, it is the busiest airport in the world by passenger count (although Beijing is catching up quickly!) Flights to major cities are now so frequent that there is no longer “slack time” between banks of connecting flights.
Low-cost carriers Southwest, Frontier, and Spirit offer substantial competition to key business and vacation centers across the US, and the major network carriers link ATL to every US hub.
Service to Asia has been slow to develop, however, as Delta has better-positioned hubs to carry traffic in that direction (such as Detroit and Seattle). There are several flights: Delta’s focus city at Tokyo-Narita is served daily, and Seoul-Incheon is now served with two daily nonstops, one from Delta and the other with their joint-venture partner Korean Air. These flights allow for convenient same-day inbound connections from all across East and Southeast Asia and most major cities in China.
More options from Atlanta to East Asia have opened through the Middle East with the arrival of Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines in 2016. These carriers have been aggressively expanding their route networks and building new airports specifically for global connecting passengers.
With the completion of the new International Terminal in 2012, the arrival procedure has been streamlined significantly. Overseas flights dock at concourses E and F and passengers from those aircraft are directed through secure hallways to the new Customs facility beneath the International Terminal. Flights from Asia tend to use Concourse F (which is attached directly to the International Terminal.)
The walk from gates on Concourse F to passport control takes less than 5 minutes, but from Concourse E you should be prepared for 15-20 minutes (although there are moving sidewalks in the tunnel to help you along.) With 20 passport-check counters, waiting time for this step should be under 10 minutes - and baggage should be arriving at the carrousels at about the same time you do.
If you have items to declare in your luggage, stop at the USCIS counter. If connecting to another flight turn left outside the baggage claim and re-check your bags at the airline counters - then proceed through the security check. Once through security, you can head up one level to Concourse F, go forward through the underground tunnel to Concourse E, or down to the tram station to ride to the other concourses. Check the row of departure information screens to figure out which direction to take.
Total time from getting off your aircraft to getting back into the gate area runs 30-60 minutes, depending on which concourse you arrive at and how many other overseas flights are being processed at the same time.
If you’re not flying somewhere else, turn right outside the baggage claim and follow the hallway to the lower level of the International Terminal. If people are waiting for you this is where they’ll be, and the parking ramps are directly outside. If you are planning on using Atlanta’s MARTA system, catch the shuttle bus to the Domestic Terminal where the train station is located.
Navigating the Airport
ATL’s gates are arranged in six long parallel concourses. Starting from the Domestic Terminal:
- Concourse T (United and American, some Delta long-haul flights)
- Concourse A (Delta mainline, usually the biggest jets)
- Concourse B (Delta mainline)
- Concourse C (Delta mainline and regional services, plus Southwest)
- Concourse D (Delta regional, Frontier, Spirit, other domestic)
- Concourse E (International services)
- Concourse F (International services)
- the International Terminal
The concourses are linked together by an underground automated tram (the "PlaneTrain"), and all gates are in the same security zone. Tram stations are located at the middle of each concourse. It takes just over a minute to travel from one concourse to the next; figure about 10 minutes from concourse A to concourse F. The tram tunnel also includes a pedestrian walkway; this is the best way to grab extra steps if you have the time or desire.
Walking from one end to the other of any concourse takes up to 15 minutes; be prepared for heavy crowds, especially in the middle sections and in front of restrooms and fast food places. Concourses A, B, C, and D get very congested (with D being the worst.)
The hallways are too narrow for moving sidewalks, and there aren’t enough escalators to quickly handle the crowds at tram stations. The tram can get very tightly-packed, especially at peak times of the day. You’ll need to carry along extra patience when traveling through ATL.
Having said that, the new Concourse F is better-designed all around, with a wider hallway, bigger gate areas, plenty of natural light, and comfier places to rest. If you have 2 or more hours between flights, this is the place to settle down.
Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems
Compared to other major airports, ATL is sorely lacking in features to make travel less stressful for parents and more enjoyable for kids.
At present, there are no play areas in the concourses. (There used to be a few, but all were removed as of May 2011.)
Some of the gift shops have toys, and Panda Veranda near gate B9 has a nice selection of stuffed animals and Atlanta Zoo merchandise, but there’s no other retail in any of the concourses specifically aimed at families.
ATL does feature an extensive collection of artwork of many varieties- from puppets to mosaics to sculptures, kid-created to professional - and pieces can be found throughout the complex, but especially on concourse E. If your children are old enough to enjoy the arts, this may be a good use of time.
Quiet, open space can be a challenge to find, and a place for kids to run around to burn off steam is even more difficult to come by. There are no designated relaxation areas, and considering how crowded the aisles get at peak connecting times, you’ll want to keep your kids very close.
As mentioned above, Concourse F is the best spot to find quiet, comfortable space if you have extended time between flights. We’ve also had good luck on Concourse E in finding empty gate areas where kids can nap or play on the carpet without getting underfoot.
Watching the takeoffs and landings is especially enjoyable in Atlanta, for the variety of airplanes you’ll see and the constant activity - the best spots for this are at the far end of any of the concourses.
There are 13 “family restrooms” in the secure gate area - 3 on concourse T; 2 on concourse A; 3 on B; 2 on C; and 2 on D. No dedicated family restrooms are located on the international concourse E, but one is on Concourse F by gate F6.
The facilities have the basics - a changing table, electric outlets, a wide space around the toilet - but are on the small size compared to other airports (except for F6) and don’t have a privacy wall around the toilet. They appear to get a lot of use, so cleanliness may be an issue.
Conventional restrooms are also heavily used, keeping the maintenance staff continually busy. The fixtures have recently been updated, but stall space is not big enough to hold your luggage and a child, and there is no shelving over the toilets or urinals to keep your bags up and out of the way. Both men’s and women’s restrooms do have changing tables near the sinks.
Food and Shopping
ATL does manage to pack a good number and variety of food options into the gate areas. Larger food courts can be found in the central areas of concourses A, B, E and F, just outside the tram escalators. The court on E has the most variety; the seating area on B has the best close-up view of the airplanes; and F has the most space to park your family comfortably.
Sit-down restaurants, fast food and coffee stands (with all the usual chains represented), and small carts are distributed evenly around the concourses.
Shopping options tend to be more of the newsstand / travel goods / electronics variety, with a few cosmetics shops and bookstores. Look for Atlanta-specific gift shops if you still need to pick up some locally-sourced items for presents.
ATL now has free WiFi available throughout the complex, including the PlaneTrain. Charging stations are widely available and easily spotted.
MARTA’s Red and Gold lines connect ATL with several neighborhoods, including College Park, West End, Downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, Lenox, Chamblee, Dunwoody, and North Springs. Connections downtown at Five Points to the Blue and Green lines give access to the east and west halves of the city as well.