What is it like to land a plane at the world’s busiest airport?
The world’s busiest airport is not in New York or London, but Atlanta. Whatever way it is measured — passenger traffic or airplane movements — Atlanta’s international airport tops the ranking.
More than 95 million passengers passed through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2012, according to Airports Council International’s latest report that was released last year. The airport also boasts the highest number of takeoffs and landings, with 930,000 flight movements in 2012.
With such sheer volume, navigating an aircraft there can be a great challenge. Tom Staigle, chief pilot of Delta, whose main main hub is at Atlanta, compares the airport to “a congested freeway.”
“We have on a clear day, 120 airplanes per hour flying in and out of here, so you have to be on your toes,” Staigle says‘s home at Atlanta International Airport
“You have to be careful to ensure you’re on the correct taxiway and you don’t end up on a runway,” says Delta pilot Stuart Kenny, “or do something else and taxi to the wrong place as you’re getting ready for takeoff.”
To give an idea how daunting it is to fly from and into Atlanta, Kenney takes CNN Business Traveller to a flight simulator.
As a plane approaches Atlanta, a pilot would see the airport’s multiple runways, a field of aircraft and a multitude of activities.
“You’d see aircraft in front of you, see aircraft over here on the north complex,” says Kenny, “see aircraft taking off at the far end, and you’d see guys turning onto the south runways.”
That’s why those in the cockpit need to work closely with those in the airport control tower.
“Air traffic control and the pilots are working together,” says Kenney, “so you have to monitor all these targets and make sure nobody incurs into your air space and causes a problem.”
As the result, “the radio traffic is daunting, says Kenney. “The radio calls are constant, so you have to listen carefully.”
And it is not just about managing landings and takeoffs. “Think about the bags, and transferring passengers from all over the world,” Staigle says. “Not only do they get where they need to be on time most of the time, but their bags come with them, and it’s a pleasant experience.”
The world’s busiest airport is not among the world’s best, however. Of the 100 airports listed in Skytrax’s 2013 World Airport Awards ranking, Atlanta’s is at No. 48, though it’s also named one of the most improved airports.
For many pilots, their first landing in Atlanta is likely to be an unforgettable experience. “It was really busy. I was a young co-pilot, and I was probably sweating a gallon of water,” Kenney recalls.
As soon as they landed, he had to go through the after-landing checklist and talked on the radio. “There’s no time to savor the experience,” says Kenney.