By Cathy Miller
The SAA meeting is almost upon us and many of you will be flying through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL). Here’s a little history on the world’s busiest airport.
You may have flown through ATL before, but did you know that the site of the Atlanta airport used to be a racetrack? Asa Candler, the business tycoon who established the Coca-Cola Company, built the racetrack in 1909. It was abandoned in 1923 – the photo here shows the racetrack ca. 1920.
In 1925, Atlanta mayor Walter A. Sims signed a five-year lease agreement on the abandoned racetrack land, aiming for the site to be developed as an airfield. As part of the agreement, the budding airport was named Candler Field after the land’s former owner, the Candler family. Four years later, the city of Atlanta bought the land and Candler Field became known as the Atlanta Municipal Airport. In the 1940s, Delta Air Service (now Delta Air Lines) moved their company headquarters from Monroe, Louisiana to Atlanta. [Sidebar 1: The Delta Flight Museum is located right next to the airport and is a fun place to visit, if you find you have the time!] During WWII, “Atlanta was declared an air base by the U.S. Government” , resulting in the airport’s doubling in size. [Sidebar 2: It’s likely that land condemnations expanding the airport’s land for military purposes during WWII are in the National Archives at Atlanta’s holdings!]
ATL’s hold on being the world’s busiest airport is not a recent phenomenon. As early as 1957, ATL was already the busiest airport in the United States and between noon and 2 p.m. each day, it became the busiest airport in the world. The 1960s brought the “Jet Age” and with it, the continuing expansion of the Atlanta Municipal Airport. The largest single terminal in the country was opened on May 3, 1961, accommodating 6 million travelers a year. Within the first year, the terminal was stretched past its capacity, prompting the Atlanta Regional Metropolitan Planning Commission to conduct formal planning studies and propose the mid-field terminal concept that opened in 1980.
Within the first 7 months of 1971, the airport saw itself go through two name changes. In February, former Mayor William B. Hartsfield died and the airport was named in his honor. On July 1, the name changed to William B. Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport due to Eastern Airlines introduction of international flights. The 1980s witnessed the opening of the world’s largest air passenger terminal complex, the completion of a fourth parallel runway, and the opening of MARTA’s airport station, linking the airport to Atlanta’s rapid transit system.
The 1990s and 2000s were years of increasing expansion for the airport. In September 1994, International Concourse E opened and became “the largest single international facility in the nation.”  Construction on a fifth runway was begun in 2001 and completed in May 2006; the runway “is hailed as ‘The Most Important Runway in America.’”  The airport received the name it is known by today – Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport – in October 2003 with the decision by the Atlanta City Council to honor late Atlanta Mayor Maynard H. Jackson. In 2012, the airport opened the Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal to manage the millions of international passengers traveling through Atlanta. Last year the airport celebrated its 90th birthday.
“”I don’t know where I’m going when I die,” most Southern air travelers have said at one time or another, “but one thing is sure: I’ll change planes at Atlanta.””  While a bit morbid, this quote is undeniable proof of the prominence of the Atlanta Airport in the commercial/cargo aviation world. It’s amazing to consider that what started as a dirt racetrack would become the busiest airport in the world.
Special thanks to Sue VerHoef and Jada Harris from the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center for their assistance in providing the images you see in this post. As attributed in citations below, much of the history written above was drawn from the airport’s own “Airport History” page.