ATLANTA - Two giant, translucent canopies spanning several lanes of roadway and sidewalks outside the domestic terminal will be among the most visible aspects of a $6 billion expansion and renovation project at the world's busiest airport during the next 20 years, officials announced Thursday.
A computer animation unveiled at the Atlanta airport's inaugural "State of the Airport" address shows the massive structures enclosing the drop-off and pickup lanes outside the main terminal and connecting the terminal to parking decks.
The canopy will protect travelers from the elements "while making a memorable impression of the world-class stature of Atlanta," said Miguel Southwell, general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
The airport also plans to update the interior of the domestic passenger terminal and concourses and add a sixth runway and a 400-room hotel, officials said. Parts of the ticketing areas where passengers check in for domestic flights will be "flooded with natural light" when renovations are complete, Southwell said.
Work begins on concourse renovations later this year. The project accelerates next year with work on parking decks, passenger gates and the terminal renovation, officials said.
Atlanta's airport handled 101.5 million passengers last year, more than any other in the world, officials said. Among U.S. airports in 2015, Chicago's O'Hare International Airport was second in passenger traffic with nearly 77 million. Los Angeles International Airport was third with nearly 75 million, according to statistics from those airports.
Among other goals for the coming year: improving wait times for passenger security screenings.
"We believe that the time it takes to get through security screening should be no longer than the time it takes for a routine doctor's examination," Southwell said. "Americans will not tolerate a one-hour wait as normal."
Passengers typically don't wait that long in European or Asian airports, nor do they experience such long waits at other U.S. airports such as Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., the airport used by many members of Congress, Southwell noted.
"But it is happening in Atlanta, and it's hurting our business," he said.
Southwell vowed to continue working with federal officials and others to make more efficient security screenings "a top priority" in the coming year.
The $393 million terminal modernization project taking place from now through 2018 will be among the first projects in the airport's 20-year capital plan, under a timeline of projects released Thursday by airport officials.
The sixth runway, estimated to cost $943 million, is scheduled for 2023-2034.
The expansion and renovation plans did not mention the future of the airport's indoor smoking rooms for passengers inside the secure areas, which have been criticized by health officials such as U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. Most U.S. airports have eliminated indoor smoking areas. Atlanta is among fewer than 10 major U.S. airports that still permit smoking indoors, according to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation.